Tag Archives: Olympics

Frozen Passion Stokes Nationalist Flame

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.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

A Tale of Two Cities

By Jason Menard

Apparently, winning in London depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.

Yesterday London, England surprised many and plucked the 2012 Olympics out from under France’s nose. And, in a cosmic balancing of franco-anglo relations, Montreal edged out London, Ontario for the rights to the Shiners Children’s Hospital.

So while they break out the party hats on Downing Street, there will be a noticeable lack of fezzes on display in The Forest City. And instead of developing a new site to help sick kids, Londoners on this side of the Atlantic will have to find a cure for bruised egos.

But once the shock and disappointment of losing what was, at one point, professed to be a sure thing passes, North American Londoners will have to realize that it’s time to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on whatever increased recognition the city may have earned from this five-year process.

However, London’s representatives at the conference almost erased any goodwill with an inflammatory video that alleged the proposed site of a new Shriners Hospital in Montreal’s Glen Yards – next to McGill’s planned superhospital – is contaminated. That game of dirty pool has put London behind the eight ball in terms of public relations.

While all parties were making nice afterwards and saying the right things about mending fences and working together in the future for the benefit of the children, the fact of the matter is that London and Montreal’s delegations have acted more like kids themselves during this process.

Whether it was questionable accusations about contaminated land or supercilious dismissals over the status of London as a major player in the medical game, both sides haven’t come out of this unscathed. But with the right attitude going forward, London’s loss could end up being a win-win-win situation for all parties involved.

Win #1 – The city of Montreal retains the Shriners Hospital, and whether they choose to renovate the existing Mount Royal location or invest in building a new site, the city is assured of remaining a hub for specialized pediatric care in North America.

Win #2 – The Shriners, despite what Londoners may think, made the right decision. Essentially, they were taken for granted by the powers-that-be in Montreal, who ignored requests for concessions until it was almost too late. In the end, the Shriners were able to use London’s efforts to woo them to work a better deal with their existing city while continuing 80 years of tradition.

Win #3 – And this is the trickiest of all. The clock is ticking on London’s 15 minutes of fame. As it stands now, we’ve proven that our existing facilities are worthy of international recognition – so much so that we were almost able to wrest away the prize of a Shriners Hospital from much bigger competition. But the key is to be able to build on that fame and entrench it into the minds of the masses.

It’s not enough to be respected – London needs to work to be revered. Respect means that those in the industry know what your city has to offer in your chosen field. London’s got that already – our hospital system is on par with any other in the country and, thanks to the University of Western Ontario and its research facilities, we’ve earned a solid name in the medical and research communities.

But reverence? That’s something difference. To be revered means that Joe (or Jean) Average knows who you are. Reverence means that perceived transportation issues – like those that allegedly helped to sink London’s bid – are a non-factor because you’ve got that name recognition to back it up. It’s all about how you market yourself.

Londoners are blessed and cursed by our self-importance. Internally, the city’s leadership believes The Forest City is a major player on the Canadian landscape – but externally, we’re really not much more than a spot on the map. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver – they can get away on name recognition alone. London has to work at promoting itself as a haven for the medical community.

There’s room for smaller cities to make their mark in this nation. One needs to look no further than down the 401 to see how the Kitchener/Waterloo/Cambridge region has become an international star in future technologies and research, powered in large part by RIM.

London needs to market itself less for its forests and more for its forceps. The Shriners’ decision shouldn’t be lamented as a loss, but rather recognized as an opportunity. The city has stepped onto the national and international stages, the audiences are waiting – now it’s time to make others see what Londoners believe: that London is, and will continue to be, a legitimate player in the theatre of Canadian health.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Pride or a Paycheque?

By Jason Menard

Pride or a paycheque? To which force should athletes be beholden? And is there really a right answer in all of this?

The Dominik Hasek situation at this year’s winter Olympic games in Torino, Italy just added a few more sleepless nights to the schedules of National Hockey League general managers and coaches. Their greatest fears were realized with the slight strain to the Czech goalie’s adductor muscle.

It’s the age old question – do you play for your country or your employer? The easy answer, especially for guys like me who don’t have millions riding on every shift, is that the pride of playing for your country outweighs any financial gain. But the realist in me knows that I’m talking out of idealism and national pride.

Things have changed since 1972 – the watershed mark for national representation. During that Canada-USSR summit series, a nation stood riveted as “our guys” faced off against “them.” This series was less about on-ice prowess than off-ice idealism. What should have been simple exhibitions between athletes from two countries quickly evolved into an on-ice battle for social and political superiority.

And this us-versus-them mentality continued on into the 80s and every contest was a pitched battle where ideals were fought for, not with words or guns, but rather with sticks and pucks. These were events and every player: whether they were Canadian, American, Soviet, or other nationality, was willing to drop everything to play/fight for their country.

Alas, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the us-versus-them nature of the games just seemed to matter less and less. How could we, as Canadians, stoke the flames of societal passion when our TVs were flooded with images of displaced Russians lining up for hours just for a loaf of bread? When the entire Eastern Bloc was struggling through the chaos of overwhelming societal and cultural reform, attaching cultural superiority to a hockey victory began to reek of Schadenfreude. It was hard to gear up for a Cold War battle when one side’s supporters ran the very real risk of freezing to death.

Starting with Sergei Priakin in 1989 and continuing with the arrival of the former members of the KLM line — Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov – to the NHL landscape, our once on-ice enemies became just another hockey player. Former ideological enemies were now playing side-by-side with North Americans for the common goal of winning a Stanley Cup.

And with that, International Competition became less of a passion and more of a source of pride. With players free to play anywhere in the world, international competitions like the Canada Cup (and its successor, the World Cup) became the location to see the best of the best play against each other. But instead of ideological supremacy being at stake, nothing more than bragging rights were on the line.

Now average NHL players from around the world are earning healthy salaries to ply their trade. And, despite the cachet of the Olympics or international competition, the National Hockey League is still considered the highest level of play. The Stanley Cup is truly hockey’s Holy Grail. So, for a Dominik Hasek, he has to balance his loyalty to the Czech Republic with his loyalty to his regular employers – the Ottawa Senators – who fill his bank statement with all those zeroes.

Despite any national pride, to NHL general managers the game is a product and the players are their assets. While winning a gold medal is nice, remaining gainfully employed is even nicer. The best way to keep their jobs is to win games – and the easiest way to win games is to have their best players playing at their top level.

That’s why there’s always a risk of allowing players to participate in these games. Sure, there’s insurance, but that only covers the financial loss – no insurance can replace the effect of a top performer on a squad.

For NHLers, whose careers are generally short, they have to balance their desire to play for their country with the risk of undermining their long-term ability to earn a top-level salary. Certainly injuries can happen anywhere, but running the risk during a game in which you’re paid by your employer seems more acceptable than any risk assumed in what is essentially and unpaid exhibition.

Pride is a very powerful force and I’m pleased to see so many athletes sacrifice themselves for the honour of playing for their country. But as international competitions become less and less relevant, the day may not be too far away when a player’s loyalty to his country is superseded by his responsibility to his employer.

And, as people just trying to make a living, will we really be able to blame them when they make that choice?

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

This Olympic Movement Hits Me in the Bowels

By Jason Menard

In just a few short days the eyes of the world – and the cameras of the CBC – will be focussed on birthplace of Western civilization, Athens, Greece. It’s an Olympic year and, judging by the paraphernalia and marketing tie-ins on display wherever you look, I’ll be the only one on the outside, not caring to look in.

Now, I’m as big of a sports fan as anyone, but I just can’t get into the Olympics. I’ve tried. Really, I have. And while I support anything that makes us feel proud as Canadians, for me this whole Olympic movement hits me more in the bowel than in the heart.

If there’s a gold medal in hypocrisy, I’m afraid we’d be solid contenders! Every two years (now that the summer and winter games fall on a rotating basis — you know — to maximize sponsor dollars) Canadians work themselves up into an orgiastic frenzy over the Olympics!

Then, almost before the torch is doused, all is forgotten. Heroes are made in a fraction of a second, but are cast aside before the final note is played on the closing ceremonies. We watch anxiously as an athlete – of whom we’ve never heard before (except for those TSN/CBC preview shows…) competes in an event we don’t really care about. We take vicarious pleasure in their victory, and heap scorn on those that don’t measure up to our expectations.

But we don’t have the right? Where are we during the intervening years? The same people who sit in judgement after another disappointing Olympic result, decrying the lack of federal funding for our elite athletes, are also the same ones who never think of ponying up their own money to go to a local fencing club or luge event! For the most part, the only people that attend amateur athletics are family and friends – actual spectators are few and far between.

And while most people wouldn’t review a book without reading it first, there seems to be no problem in shooting off our mouths on athletes and sports we know next to nothing about.

What these athletes need is our support more than once every four years! They give their bodies, minds, and dedication to a cause, often with little to no support, no funding, and no general interest. While we produce reams of newsprint detailing the goings-on of millionaire professionals, these true athletes, who are the purest representation of sport out there, get next to no notice – except when the Olympics roll around.

To take vicarious pride in the successes of athletes that we’ve ignored for so long insults the effort, pain, and hardship they’ve endured to become elite. It’s like the guy at work or school that takes equal credit for a project you’ve completed despite doing next to no work! You hate that guy in everyday life, but you have no compunctions about being that guy when the Olympics roll around.

Now, it’s too late to jump on the ol’ bandwagon this year. Anyway, doing so would just seem so transparent. So go ahead and watch the Olympics, enjoy the thrill of competition, cheer the Maple Leaf to your hearts’ content. Cheer on our fencers, our synchronised swimmers, and our handball competitors! And feel free to revel in the fact that, win or lose, they will have represented our country at the highest level of competition.

But don’t let that be the end of your journey. The moment that athlete breaks the tape at the finish line should be the moment you start your involvement! That trampoline competition really got you jumping? Find out when the next local event takes place – and attend! Your admission dollars, for the most part, will help fund those athletes and help them get to the next level.

People that wouldn’t think twice about taking out a second mortgage for Leafs’ tickets rarely drop any coin to get into gymnastics meet – but these athletes need your support! Really, it’s the least you can do to pay for you riding their coat tails to the podium this summer.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved