We Kicked Your (Hockey) Butt! The Rare Canadian Pleasure Of Actually Being Noticed

Live in the U.S. as a Canadian and you/we so often remain invisible.

Even our entire nation seems to be off the radar most of the time.

Not anymore!

For me, the cool thing wasn’t the total medal count. It’s not the dangerous track and the awful luger’s death or Joanie Rochette’s astonishing grace (and bronze).

It’s just…being noticed.

Canadians, whatever the 2010 Games’ glitches and disasters, are about to slide once more off the world stage. We’re probably OK with that.

In fact, probably relieved. Much as some nations thrive on attention and celebrity, others find the whole idea of constant gaze and criticism and analysis about as much fun as gum surgery.

But, for now, woo-hoo!

[daylifegallery id=”1267398687803″]

I Am Olympic'ed Out! No More Whiners (Hello, Plushenko) Or On-Podium Air Guitar (Yes, Shaun White)

WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 26:  Shaun White ...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I’m done. One more week to go. Feh.

No more Bob Costas — nestled so deep into that plush armchair of his he looks like Pee Wee Herman, no more weepy/fist-pumping athletes (it’s binary, kids, you will win or you will lose,) no more tight close-ups of athletes and their coaches indulging in last-minute whatevers.

I’ve loved what I’ve seen. As someone who’s competed at the national level and who knows a few Olympians, (and one who missed making his team by one spot), I get it. I deeply value and believe in the challenge, joy, pain and tremendous focus it takes to achieve Olympic-level athletic excellence. Today’s Wall Street Journal profiles a bob-sledder who lost his home due to the financial strain of getting to the 2010 Games.

The hype, the lack of helpful commentary or insight on most of it, is leaving me disengaged and bored right now.

If I have to watch 14 men skate their 5-minute programs [or however long it is] how about something as basic as — what music did they choose? How hard would it be to sub-title it or announce at the beginning what each of them has chosen to skate to? I recognized some of the warhorses, the theme from ‘Out of Africa’ and the much-beloved Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. But stuff like that is much more relatable and interesting to me, and I bet to thousands of other non figure-skaters, than “OMG, he blew the triple salchow!” muttered for the umpteenth time by Scott Hamilton.

I found the Lycasek-Plushenko drama tedious and rude. The American won. He beat a gold medalist without a quadruple jump. Get over it! Pardon the mixed metaphor, but this is inside baseball, endless petty bickering over points of style and content that very, very few spectators even give a damn about.

Nor was I impressed by Shaun White playing air guitar on the podium. Ho-hum, another gold medal. Rude. You’re 24, dude, not 14.

So, tonight, it’s back to Netflix for me. What about you?

What Coaches Teach Their Olympic Competitors

Yao Bin at the boards at the 2007-2008 Grand P...
Yao Bin, Chinese skating coach. Image via Wikipedia

One of the aspects of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics I most enjoy is watching athletes with their coaches, just before an event or afterwards. It was moving indeed last night, watching Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao (the oldest skater, at 36, competing this year) win gold and  Qing Pang and Jian Tong take silver in pairs figure skating. If you’d have named China as a figure skating powerhouse even a decade ago, who would have agreed?

It’s due to Yao Bin, their coach, who was profiled in a lovely NBC item last night that made clear how much he, too, personally sacrificed along the way, rarely seeing his own son as he helped others perfect their athletic skills to international standards. It was moving, as cameras moved off-rink, to see him and the skaters openly weeping with pride and joy at their collective achievement.

Reports the Times‘ Jere Longman:

The three Olympic Chinese pairs come from the country’s winter sports capital of Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, and are all tutored by the same coach, Yao Bin. Only one Chinese female singles skater, and no male singles skater, qualified for the Vancouver Games.

Juliet Macur’s New York Times profile of skater Evan Lysacek today offers a taste of what coaches do to keep their athletes going:

Lysacek said the key to winning a medal here was staying calm. At the 2008 nationals, when he was trying to successfully defend his title, he was so nervous that he nearly hyperventilated before his short program.

To refocus him, Carroll told Lysacek to remember all the hard work he had put in. Then he slapped Lysacek, leaving a mark on his face as he took the ice. Lysacek said he did not mind it.

“You have to believe in yourself and realize that you’ve done the work; I think about that a lot,” Lysacek said. “I let it all sink in after a practice where no one is cheering, no one is watching. It’s just me in a cold, stinky locker room, all by myself, exhausted.”

A coach able to help his or her athletes reach Olympic-level skill must combine tremendous skills — both emotional and physical.

I was coached, in saber fencing, by Steve Mormando, a two-time Olympian. He took a bunch of raggedy-ass mid-30s New York women, back when women just didn’t fence saber (and certainly not at the Olympics) and turned us into ferocious competitors. He pushed us in every way he knew how, sometimes much harder than we had ever pushed ourselves.

One night, worn out and fed up, I sat in  a stairwell and cried. I didn’t come to practice for about a month, deciding whether any of this was worth my time and effort. We all knew that, if anyone knew what it took to become excellent, to compete effectively through injury and pain and fatigue, Steve did. He’d been there and done that. Trusting his judgment of us meant seeing ourselves in new and unfamiliar ways.

If you take up a sport late(r) in life as an amateur, especially, you need someone who truly, madly and deeply believes in you. Not just what your body can do, but what your spirit will do to push past your limitations.

I came back, determined to get as good as I possibly could, and qualified for, and competed at, nationals four years in a row.

He knew how to push us, and when to back off.

You have to want it more than anything. A coach can only get you so far.

Yes, Canadians Are Nice. We Also, At The Olympics Or Not, Compete Hard. Get Over It!

Image by Aidan Jones via Flickr

Canadians are nice. Yes, we are. We also want to win.

The two, to the intense confusion of every (yawn) American commentator (OMG, why aren’t they just like us?) are not in total opposition as cherished values.

Anyone who’s had a Canadian punch to the face during a hockey fight knows that Canada isn’t wholly against sporting aggression. It’s simply a nation with other sensibilities.

Its murder rate is around one-fourth of the United States’ (2007 homicides: America, 14,831; Canada, 594). And while homicides per capita isn’t generally considered a harbinger of Olympic success, there’s no arguing that offing someone is about the most aggressive of human behaviors. When you’re from a culture where it’s somewhat common, elbowing a competitor for position on a short-track speedskating race can seem like second nature.

Even in their most popular sport, rough-and-tumble hockey, their greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, was known as smooth and sportsmanlike, not a cutthroat competitor.

Still, the Canadian government is trying to usher in a new mentality. The signs of “Go Canada!” are everywhere, from the sides of 7-Eleven coffee cups to signage hanging around British Columbia.

“This phrase, ‘Own the Podium’, isn’t this a little arrogant for Canada? No it’s not,” Canadian Olympic Committee chief Chris Rudge told the Associated Press. “Being self-confident and being the nice people we’ve always been at Games, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be both. You can be aggressive and win with grace and humility the way Canadians always have. But let’s do it more often. Let’s win more often.”

To most of the world, this seems second nature.

Why is this idea that winning doesn’t automatically come with a middle-finger salute to the vanquished — instead of a pumped fist, a smile and a gracious handshake to your competitors, whatever your podium position, so alien?

Maybe it’s having 10 percent of the U.S. population. Or offering everyone free universal healthcare, or having the best colleges (all of them public) costing $5,000 a year, not $50,000. You compete hard in Canada for good housing, jobs, promotions. But, getting to the starting gate of life has fewer obstacles, and maybe that’s part of why Canadians are more mellow. There’s more room at the table so shoving hard to get at it all seems…tacky and weird.

I know a Canadian middle school teacher, who taught on Long Island and in Canada. The differences between how kids are raised, socialized and praised for their behaviors in the two countries was profoundly different, she told me. Canadian kids want to win, but not at the expense of making others feel like crap. American kids, certainly those in suburban New York, didn’t give a rip if the losers ended up in tears of humiliation. They were losers, weren’t they?

If that’s the only lesson these bewildered-by-niceness Yanks finally take away from these Olympics, terrific.

Swollen With Pride By The Olympics' Opening Ceremony? Not So Much

Cropped transparent version of :Image:Olympic ...
Image via Wikipedia

Leave it to NBC commentators Bob Costas And Matt Lauer to pump up the volume, asserting that Canadians would surely “swell with pride” at having the Olympics in Vancouver.

We  — my Dad, visiting from Toronto — watched the opening ceremonies last night, quite prepared to be awed and moved and a little weepy. Instead, we all went to bed early, an hour before they ended.

Sad enough was the death of the young Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, and the somber faces and black armbands of his fellow athletes made a stark contrast to the joy of the other delegations. But the performances, dancing, music and lighting — $40 million worth (10 percent of what was spent for the stunning Beijing opening ceremonies) — were a definite disappointment, at least to us two cynical Canadians. My Dad and I were both born in Vancouver, and he grew up there, so we’ve certainly got some emotional ties to the place.

The emphasis on the First Nations, while adding plenty of sparkle and feathers and drums, was as politically correct as it could possibly get. It also neatly sidestepped the larger, ongoing Canadian issue — what the hell is a Canadian? It’s a nation of immigrants, like the U.S., but 100 years younger, a nation that only got its very own flag in 1965 and one in which the “cultural mosaic” (keep your own traditions and language) trumps the American ideal of the “melting pot.” If not the First Nations, who, then, would represent Canada and all it stands for? Free health care? Great beer?

I did tear up, briefly, as the snowboarder shot down a mountain through a red maple leaf composed of flare-holding by-standers. The aurora borealis projected on the enormous fabric centerpiece was magical. But having hundreds of dancers was lost in the enormous scale of the stadium. Sarah Mclachlan was hidden (why?) behind a glossy white piano and even Nikki Yanofsky, whose singing I’ve blogged about here, didn’t do much with her rendition of “Oh, Canada.”

The guy in the canoe, playing a fiddle, was meant to represent Quebec. Not for me. The tattooed guy tap-dancing, his Mohawk swinging with effort? Meh.

Maybe it really is impossible to represent an entire country, even if it’s got the population — 30 million — of New York State.

I wanted to swell, really. Truth is, Canadians aren’t big on pomp and ceremony. We’d rather just go out and — as Costas did get right — kick some butt. Let the Games begin.