The 2010 Winter Olympics: for better, or for worse embodying the human spirit

The 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games were not yet a week old before the international media unleashed their hounds. The games and their organizing committee, VANOC, garnered plenty of bad ink in those initial hours and days, including some from within Canada itself. The harshest criticism of all came courtesy of a country with a poor pedigree in winter events: Britain.

For instance, Owen Slot from the Times of London claimed VANOC was “winning few prizes for the impression that their Olympics are making on the rest of the world.” And Neil Wilson of the Daily Mail labeled these games a “farce,” writing that all the red in the audiences should really be a “reflection of their official embarrassment” and not one of national pride. Then, on Feb. 15, Lawrence Donegan of The Guardian chimed in with a piece titled “Vancouver Games continue downhill slide from disaster to calamity,” with his thesis that these games would ultimately be remembered as the “worst of all time.”

As this barrage of bad press was beginning to stoke Canadians’ already sizable inferiority complex, the staff writers at issued a response, pointing out that once proper consideration was paid to either the Munich hostage crisis in 1972, or the Atlanta Olympic Park Bombing in 1996, any discussion of 2010 as the worst Olympics ever became a non-starter. While the CBC article certainly helped to contextualize foreign criticism, their main argument — based wholly in relativism — did not do enough. Not only were the British press corps’ grossly negative reports almost impossible to take at face value — after all, London is hosting the next Olympics, so it’s only in their own interest to artificially lower the bar — but more importantly, their writers seemed to have forgotten what the modern Olympic Games have always been held up to represent — namely, humanity.

Without a doubt, the games of the 21st Winter Olympiad were affected by a myriad of early problems — from weather concerns, technical glitches, administrative snafus and most notably, the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. But then the human narrative has always been a story peppered with blunders and frustration, struggle and tragedy. For better or for worse, the Vancouver Olympics were no different.

Admittedly, the images of Vancouver volunteer crews hastily driving artificial snow up Cyprus Mountain were strange, especially since this was happening in the middle of a Winter Olympics, but then again, on the same day as the opening ceremonies, nearly 4,000 km away, Dallas, Texas was hit with half a foot of snow. So really, the lack of fresh powder in Vancouver should be blamed on El Nino and a global climate way out of whack, rather than on official mismanagement. Same thing goes for the controversy surrounding the Olympic flame’s notorious fence.

Sure, the unappealing chain link fence was a hassle for those looking to get up close and personal with Vancouver’s Olympic monument, but so is the inability to bring liquids on an airplane. That fence, in all of its crude inconvenience, stood out only as a perfect representation of modern life in this high-alert world. Of course, that torch had already by then been a source of considerable embarrassment for the VANOC officials after the fourth pillar malfunctioned in front of global audience during the opening ceremonies. Yes, this “technical difficulty” happened to occur on the world’s biggest stage, but in the end criticism was largely blown out of proportion. It was but a reminder that even with the utmost of care, sometimes things just don’t go as planned.

In contrast, Kumaritashvili’s horrible accident during his final training run understandably cast a pall over the festivities, and severely dampened the country’s mood. Unfortunately, this awful incident only serves as microcosm for our entire existence, where tragedy all too often follows us around like a black cloud. Luckily, our collective narrative also includes tales of perseverance and of triumph over tragedy. Thankfully, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics also brought many of these moments. The opening ceremonies for example were always expected to be a wonderful showcase for Canada, and with all technical difficulties aside, they were. However, in the wake of Kumaritshvili’s passing, throats lumped and tears welled when the remaining Georgian delegation, beset with heavy hearts, still marched proudly into B.C. Place. In those few minutes we watched not as Canadians or Germans or Americans, but rather, as world citizens, collectively honouring the true gift of human life.

Despite the tug at our heartstrings, our tears would not retire after the ceremonies. They would make a return 11 days later in response to Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette. Having suddenly lost her mother just days earlier, Rochette delivered a bronze medal-winning performance amidst the most adverse of personal circumstances to etch her lasting legacy on Olympic lore.

On a purely athletic level, Canada was also beginning to feel the heat from the press, both nationally and abroad for their slow start in the medal standings. It was again Rochette’s emotional skate to the podium along with men’s skeleton gold medalist Jon Montgomery’s euphoric, beer-soaked walk through the hordes at Whistler that seemed to give the entire nation a renewed sense of pride and optimism. Riding an unprecedented wave of patriotism in this country, Canadian athletes combined for a total of 14 medals in the last five days of competition, culminating with a thrilling gold medal victory in overtime of the men’s hockey final to clinch Canada the all-time record for most gold medals in a single Winter Olympics. In 2010, Vancouver played host to scenes of tragedy and heartbreak, but also to moments of redemption and glory. Many spectators were forced to sit through bouts of inclement weather, but then they often did so while witnessing athletic performances of the highest order.

At the end of the day, all those cynical media types were right about one thing; with all its various missteps and issues along the way, the 2010 Winter Olympics were far from perfect, but because of this, the Games were able to embody the highs and lows of the human spirit in a way that a flawless event never could.