There are tides and rhythms to an event that spans 17 days and includes 82 countries—an event so large it is capable of altering the emotional climate of a city, a province, a nation; indeed, the moods of many nations. Rather like the weather at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, which flip-flopped time and time again from monsoon to shorts and sunshine.
From a Canadian perspective, the run of these Games—from early stumbles to triumphant conclusion—went a bit like speed skater Christine Nesbitt’s 1,000-m race on the first Thursday at the Richmond Oval. At the start gun, 24-year-old Nesbitt later said, “Instead of skating I kind of panicked. I had a slip after two or three steps.” Sometimes when that happens it’s hard to regain control. Just 200 m into the race Nesbitt was in a dismal 15th place. At 600 m she had clawed back to ninth, and the podium seemed an impossible reach. But she prepared mentally and physically for such things. The only way forward is to draw on your training, stick to your plan and to make sure no one can accuse you of giving up. And so she raged through the last lap, throwing herself across the line to win Canada’s third gold medal by two one-hundredths of a second—still scowling at herself for not having run a perfect race.
It was later that night, after the medal presentation ceremony at BC Place, that Nesbitt finally unclenched. Yes, she allowed to a couple of Maclean’s reporters, she was feeling better now. It’s just that she thought she could do better, she said. “I don’t want to regret anything, right?” Then the smile grew bigger. “But if you don’t have the race of your life and you still win gold, it’s pretty sweet.”
Writ large, these Games followed a similar path to a “pretty sweet” conclusion. The organizational and emotional equivalent of those first 200 m were indeed the worst: struggling through the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili hours before the opening ceremonies; warring against the elements for control of Cypress Mountain; fighting premature claims the Games were hell-bent for disaster; staring down international rants that we were too hungry for medals, and domestic bleats that we weren’t hungry enough.
And then a corner was turned, and another, and another. You win by following your training, by having a plan, and a backup plan, and yet one more. You win by dealing with the moment, not by obsessing about the outcome. And so VANOC, the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, fulfilled its promise to create a world-class event.
The Canadian Olympic Committee and its curiously controversial Own the Podium program delivered the conditions that earned Canada more medals than at any Olympics in history. And those who don’t often follow sports learned of a 22-year-old moguls skier named Alexandre Bilodeau who won, on the second night of the Games, the first Canadian gold medal ever on domestic soil. True to his promise that night, there were many more to come: 14 in total, the most of any country.
True, our 206 athletes didn’t own the podium with their 26 medals. Full credit for that goes to the remarkable performance of the U.S. Olympic team with 37, building—Canadian legislators take note!—on the resources and legacy of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. But one can add immodestly (a trend apparently born of these Games) that Canada won more winter gold than any host country before, well above the 10 gold the U.S. won in Salt Lake. There, we said it. Um, sorry.
What our athletes did—those who made the podium and many who fell short—is elevate us with their very human stories of commitment, sacrifice, guts and sportsmanship. Make that sportswomanship, for Canadian women carried the load, as they did in Turin, by winning 56 per cent of the podium finishes. When the great Clara Hughes capped off her Olympic career on the Richmond speed skating oval with her sixth medal, she donated her $10,000 medal bonus to an East Vancouver outdoor program for at-risk youth. With equal generosity, she credited Canadian fans for lifting her across the finish line. “They gave me wings,” she said. Well, Ms. Hughes, the feeling is mutual.
It’s largely up to us what we make of these Games, now that the men’s hockey team has gold, and the grand party that was the closing ceremonies is over, and the Olympic circus has left town. Much can be built from the legacy. There’s no secret to the formula—it’s the one that brought the Olympics to Vancouver and the one that saw them through: vision, planning and ceaseless toil. A thick skin doesn’t hurt either.