By Jason Menard
The Olympics are fast approaching and people all around are working on their calf-strengthening exercises – you know how hard it can be on your legs jumping on and off the bandwagon. But while the alleged thrill of international competition does nothing for more in general, I have to admit that the upcoming Olympic hockey tournament has stoked my nationalistic fires.
I watch the Olympics just like everyone else – how can you not, it’s on pretty much all day every day – but that spark that ignites the rabid sports fan in even the most anti-athlete continues to elude me. As proud as I am of my country, I can’t seem to get stoked about winning a medal in ice dance. Nor am I despondent about a poor showing in skeleton (as cool as that sport is.)
Simply put, these are sports that I don’t care about for the intervening three years of my life, so why should I suddenly live and die with their fortunes once every four years? I find that somewhat hypocritical, but who am I to sit in judgment. If other people care (and they do, judging by the sudden rise in and sheer volume of arm-chair experts who can go on about the inequities in figure skating judging for the Eastern European bloc, despite not knowing the difference between a Salchow from a Lutz) then that’s their prerogative.
If you can gain enjoyment from this type of mercenary sports enthusiasm, then I say more power to you. But it’s really too bad that Olympic fever is such an acute disease. It would be nice if the infection that people get when the stakes are highest would stick around after the Olympic flame is doused. Our athletes, in large part, toil before empty houses dotted only with the odd friend or family member. While 21,000+ will sell out the Bell Centre in Montreal, ski jumpers, bobsledders, and biathletes toil in relative obscurity. Their efforts only mattering – and being unfairly scrutinized – once every four years.
However, before I douse the Olympic flame totally, let me say there is one event that stokes the fires of my competitive heart. One event that prompts me to stand up (OK, sit up forcefully on my couch) and proclaim my pride in my nation. And that sport is hockey. Already, with the various national squads announcing their teams, the thrill of anticipation is rising in me. I scan the rosters, plan out match-ups, and look for potential road blocks on the way to gold. Make no mistake, I’m excited – and I’m not alone.
I grew up in the Canada Cup era. Born slightly after the Canada-Russian Summit Series, I grew up being regaled with the stories of that epic tournament. Those implanted memories stuck with me as I became a hockey fan in my own right. And, growing up during the Cold War, those Canada-Russia games were the epitome of athletic and social competition.
As a proud Canadian, my heart sailed and sunk with the on-ice exploits of our national hockey teams. From the Canada Cup to the World Cup tournament, from the World Juniors to the World Championships (also known as the consolation prize for good players on crappy NHL teams who can’t get to the playoffs), and now to the epitome of competition – the Olympics.
Sure, these aren’t amateurs and, as such, aren’t competing in the spirit of the Olympics. But, come on, this is the best of the best competing at their peak in mid-season form. The world’s best players returning to their home countries to don their national colours and take to the ice with more than just gold, silver, or bronze on the line. They face off with the goal of earning, protecting, or restoring national pride.
What makes this even better is that I care about these people and this sport. I watch hockey in the intervening three years and am familiar with the players. I watch the junior and national programs, so I feel like I have an investment in the program. Try as I might, I couldn’t care who’s representing Canada in curling, and I will feel no joy or pride in winning gold in that event.
But if Canada comes home with gold in hockey, that’s a celebration I can legitimately feel a part of. I’ve supported the program not only in two-week Olympic intervals, so I feel justified that I’ve made enough of an investment to earn a return!
I liken it to an experience I had in high school. I won an award for top German student in grade 10 (ask me if I remember anything now), and I took little pleasure in it. However my friend, who worked his butt off and legitimately strove for this recognition, was legitimately upset when he lost. He cared, I didn’t. How much more would winning that award have meant to him? And that’s the way I feel about most Olympic sports. If I win, fine – but don’t ask me to get excited.
While many will be living vicariously through the exploits of our undeservedly anonymous speed skaters, bobsledders, and lugers, I’ll be saving my enthusiasm for when the puck drops. Winning is good, but winning at something you’ve invested in makes it all the better. If I’m going to live and die with something, it has to be something that I actually care about.
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