07 March 2010

An Olympic Fortnight, Vancouver!

For 17 days, Vancouver has treated the world to a showcase of the human spirit.

The Olympic Games have a habit of doing that. And these Winter Olympics were no different. (See http://www.vancouver2010.com/ for all the stories.)

The Games stated on a tragic note, with Georgian luge slider Nodar Kumaritashvili dying in a horrific training crash on the morning of the opening ceremony. Dodgy weather conditions conspired to further dampen the mood, with Cypress Mountain being forced to shut down portions of the spectator areas for safety reasons, and disappointing thousands of ticket-holders offered the scant consolation of a refund. A sizable section of Vancouver's population, too, were up in arms about the hefty tax bill that seem to be unjust desserts for all host nations of Olympic Games.

But the mood began to shift and the gloom began to lift when hearts and minds became captivated by the human stories of the Games:

American idols and skiers Lindsay Vonn and Bode Miller winning gold in dramatic fashion: Vonn pushing pain aside to capture the downhill title(she injured her shin a week before the Games and was a doubtful starter) and Miller clawing himself back from 7th position going into the second leg of the super-combined.

Slovenia's cross-country skier Petra Majdic displaying true grit after a warm-up tumble into a craggy creek bed, to ski four gruelling races before being stretchered off the course after the finals. A medical examination later revealed she had suffered five broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette being knocked down by the sudden, unexpected death of her mother who had flown into town to cheer her on, then somehow channelling her emotions for a few critical minutes two days later to skate her heart out on the ice. The scoreboard showed bronze, but her performance was pure gold.

And of course, the Canadian men's hockey team who gave the nation the gold medal it craved the most badly, by winning a sudden-death playoff in the finals against a young but brilliant US team that had played above itself throughout the Games.

The closing celebrations had a magic moment of its own when a faux repairman, giant screwdriver hanging from his toolbelt, 'fixed' the mechanical arm of the Olympic cauldron that had infamously failed to rise during the opening ceremony. Nothing is as endearing as a host nation that can laugh at itself.

Canada ended the Games with a haul of 26 medals (including a superb 14 gold, the best-ever achievement by any country in a single Winter Olympics). On another level, perhaps even more significant was the way the whole nation came together as One after a lukewarm first week. VANOC chief John Furlong paid tribute to "the most beautiful kind of patriotism that (has) broken out all across our country." My niece and nephew are Canadians and performed in the opening ceremony; it's an indescribable experience they'll cherish for the rest of their lives.

I lived and worked in Canada myself for close to seven years, and can vouch that for the longet time, the country's sports psyche seemed to be best summed up by the mantra, "Go for the bronze!" Not anymore. Canada has found a new voice, a raison d'etre; and Canadians are becoming comfortable with making it visible.

Billions of dollars are spent on nation and city branding each year as countries strive to reinvent themselves for the 21st century. Very rarely does a vision capture the hearts and minds of a populace as completely and seamlessly as it appeals at the same time to a nation's visitors. With these Games, brand Canada has turned the pages and started on a new chapter in its history.
I'm looking forward to the unfolding story.

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