Canada redefines itself in crescendo Olympics windup

Doug FirbyCALGARY, AB, Mar. 1, 2010/ Troy Media/ – Ladies and gentleman, meet the new Canada.

No longer the humble also-rans, in two short weeks Canada redefined itself as brash, pushy, boisterous – and not afraid to put everything on the line.

At the outset, Canada declared it would own the podium – a goal seemingly so audacious as to be laughable for a country that in the past had never won a gold medal at an Olympics it has hosted.

Today, Canada’s athletes hold 14 gold medals – more than any other single country ever has – and sits third with 26 medals overall. The tally is two shy of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s hubristic objective of 28. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a Canadian who doesn’t think his country has exceeded his wildest competitive dreams.

US gets long-overdue comeuppance

Sunday’s thrilling overtime triumph over arch-rival US in men’s ice hockey was a great show, but it was also just the icing on a very tasty cake. Before the elite squad set skate to ice, Canadians were already feeling ecstatic over its incredible Olympic turnaround.

A day before the big game, a friend of mine summarized the mood of the nation: “The worst Canada can do in these Olympics is better than it has ever done before. We rock, we rule, we are tired of being good, we are ready to be great.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround from the mid-point of the Olympic games. Halfway through, Canada’s performance had been as big a disappointment as the gloomy weather that haunted the Olympic venues. Canada’s injury riddled ski team fell well short of expectations, as did our speed skaters, and an anxious nation braced for national humiliation. One snooty Brit declared it possibly the worst games ever.

In our darkest hour, we got some light-hearted relief from Jon Montgomery, the unlikely gold medallist in skeleton. A red-bearded auctioneer and used car salesman from Russell, Man., Montgomery’s carefree elation at his unexpected triumph – just Canada’s fourth gold of the Games – seemed the perfect balm for a nation with an open wound.

It was the beginning of the second week that brought first inspiration, and then reward. The nation collectively fell in love with young Quebec skater Joannie Rochette, who showed incredible courage and poise to claim a bronze medal just days after her mother suddenly died of a heart attack in Vancouver.

Suddenly, the medals started to trickle in, and the mood improved. Small-town sweethearts Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir grabbed Canada’s first ice-dancing gold. Ashleigh McIvor of Whistler, B.C., reigned over women’s freestyle ski cross. And Christine Nesbitt won the 1,000 metre speed skating. Charles Hamelin, disappointed in two earlier speed skating events, won two golds in just more than an hour on Friday night.

This was only the beginning. Canada had found its stride and was ready to startle the world with a crescendo finish.

Then came super Saturday, when our speed skaters, curlers and snowboarders found golden redemption.  Jay Anderson came from seemingly nowhere to capture the parallel giant slalom snowboard – and couldn’t believe his own accomplishment. Curling skip Kevin Martin shook the monkey of previous defeats off his back and led Team Canada to gold. A trio seized the 3,200-metre long-track speed skating, beating out – who else but the Americans? – by just 21-100ths of a second. The women’s hockey team completed its sweep of the tournament by defeating – you guessed it – the US 2-0. It was a march so dominant, Jacques Rogge, CEO of the International Olympic Committee, warned that things have to get more competitive in the future.

Redemption, new sense of pride

Like the Games themselves – marred by the early death of a Georgian luger – Canadian athletes had not only salvaged the nation’s honour; but it had also found redemption, and a new sense of pride.

And then came Sunday – the gold medal hockey game that brought the entire nation to a halt. Collectively, Canada held its breath through three tense periods, and seven minutes and 40 seconds of frantic overtime, until Sidney Crosby’s goal unleashed a roar that could be heard from sea to sea to sea.

“These golden games have their crowning moment,” declared the play-by-play commentator.

Canadians are now back to work, sharing water-cooler chat about the incredible two weeks that held a nation transfixed. It’s only sport, but – just as the Paul Henderson’s goal that defeated that Soviets in 1972 rewrote our country’s folklore – the triumphs of the last few days have in subtle ways changed the way we view ourselves, and the way the world sees us.

It has been a running joke that if you ask a Canadian what he is, he tells you he’s not an American.

Those days are gone. We are stronger, prouder, more audacious than before. More complex. More sophisticated. Less polite. The hardy product of a rough-cut land of trees, ice and maple leaves, we now believe the Great White North is more than a running clicha. Defined at last as the nation we’ve always been, rather than the nation we’re not.

No longer a could-have-been country, Canada can no longer be spoken of or written about in the conditional tense. It has earned long overdue recognition as a world champion.

And that’s only the beginning.

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