Scott Sharplin believes that the Olympics are a continued part of Canada learning how to work out the country’s own narrative.
As the 2014 Winter Olympics wind down (they are winding down soon, right?), I feel like I ought to have learned something from the experience, however remote and abstract they have been for me. I’m not an athlete, much less an Olympian; and the sum of my direct exposure to Sochi’s proceedings was approximately 90 seconds’ worth of CBC Radio highlights, received in 5-second bursts between starting the car and switching to my iPod. Yet I have felt involved, largely thanks to Facebook.
For the past two weeks, my news feed has felt like a war zone, or at least a protest rally. Each new day brings in waves of links to articles about Putin’s appalling oppression of Russian homosexuals; about the environmental and economic toll the Olympic infrastructure will have upon the region; about the mass extermination of street animals in Sochi; about the corruption, the extortion, the expropriation, the propaganda, and the frustration felt by so many when developed, democratic countries turn a blind eye.
At exactly the same time, I have witnessed an electronic outpouring of patriotism and pride every time my country’s emissaries climb the podium. Some of the most jubilant posts seem to come from the very same Facebook friends who loathe Putin and everything he stands for. And while I won’t accuse any of my friends of hypocrisy (stick with me, friends, and you’ll find the opposite is true), I find myself alarmed by the dissociation between the way liberal humanist Canadians discuss the Olympics, and the way we experience the Olympics.
As you may have guessed, I’ve never cared for the Games. Perhaps if I were more athletic myself, or if my household had lionized athletes, I would tune in. Throughout most of my youth, the Olympics were a noisy blur in the periphery of my vision; even when the city next door hosted the Winter Games in 1988, it never occurred to me that I could hop on a bus, spring for a ticket, and watch the world’s best lugers luge. Although, I think that was the year I flew to Toronto to see Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera.
Today, I understand the pull of the Olympics a bit better. See, I’m a storyteller by vocation; and while my teenage self thought Phantom was a cracking good story, I now see how viewers from around the world interpret the Olympics: as a smorgasbord of epic storytelling. It’s the same with all sports, to a lesser degree; as David Mamet writes, “We rationalize, objectify, and personalize the process of the game exactly as we do that of a play, a drama. For, finally, it is a drama, with meaning for our lives. Why else would we watch it?”
I suspect that, for most viewers, the Olympic narrative can be summed up with the “Follow Your Dreams” trope. We all wish we could be the Best at something, and there is only one arena on Earth in which Bestness can be universally agreed upon. When dreams come true in the Games – and they always do, since someone’s got to win the gold – they are the vicarious dreams of the multitude. And viewers also savour the tragedies, the near-misses, the heartbroken competitors who repeat the same platitudes year after year. It’s not just schadenfreude, it’s empathy, catharsis; we’ve all been second place, third place…last place.
For some people, though, a different story takes precedence. Even before the Games began, human rights organizations were reporting on the sharp increase of violence against Russian homosexuals, following Putin’s ban on “homosexual propaganda.” For those who have experienced similar hate crimes first-hand, the tragic narrative of state-sanctioned intolerance becomes more moving, more urgent, and ultimately more meaningful than tales of medals lost and won. Now, the protagonists are not Following Their Dreams; they are the victims of Dreams Destroyed, and the Olympic noise becomes a parade across their graves.
Now repeat this narrative for environmentalists, who see Sochi’s next generation, loaded up with carcinogens, as the pitiable protagonists. Or for animal lovers, but with innocent street dogs as the, well, the underdogs. These stories are, arguably, more meaningful than Olympic narratives; I’ve always found the anti-boycott argument (“But the athletes only get one shot!”) terribly short-sighted, as though Olympians and their dreams are suddenly the only thing that matters. Not even an Olympian hopeful, for all their drive and single-mindedness, would place their shot at glory above the lives or safety of a whole community.
So why didn’t Canada boycott Sochi (or Beijing, for that matter, where human rights abuses were broader and more extreme)? The real answer has nothing to do with athletes and their dreams, and precious little to do with Olympics fans and the ratings they generate. In Harperland, the answer to every political decision is written in dollar signs; economic investments and partnerships trump humanitarian concerns, and the Olympics is a great big, greased-palm handshake between all the nations who participate.
That’s the truth, but it’s not the true story. The writ-large story of the Olympics is about equality, and the celebration of the human spirit, not power-mongering. And even some of those liberals who don’t subscribe to any of the tragic narratives I’ve listed above might still get seduced by the grandiose Olympic narrative. That’s the only way one can argue that the Games are anything but political – although, again, I find myself choking back accusations of hypocrisy whenever fans cry, “It’s not about politics” and “Go Canada!” with the same breath.
But hunting for hypocrites is as demoralizing as watching athletes come home empty-handed. I want to believe that there is a better way to understand what happens during these tumultuous two weeks – a meta-narrative that won’t cast every single liberal hockey fan as a fraud. I imagine a sort of tragic allegory, in which Canada itself is the Hamlet-like hero: forced to wear a cheerful mask despite a secret knowledge that everything around him is corrupt, he proves so adept at feigning conformity that he loses himself to the role. A tempting delusion; but maybe the truth is even more complex.
In A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul describes the Confederation of Canada, I am paraphrasing here, as a commitment to make the impossible work. Unlike many post-colonial nations, including the U.S.A., who defined themselves against their former masters, Canada was an experiment in acknowledging the differences within its borders. Three distinct cultures – English, French, and Aboriginal (which is of course itself a multitude of cultures) – went into the experiment with their eyes open, cognizant of their vast differences, but willing to look for points of harmony, however rare they might be.
Our policy of Working It Out has since become a national narrative – even an international one, if one considers Canada’s long-standing (albeit now profoundly compromised) history of peacekeeping. Those of us old enough to recall the country’s two separation referendums can attest to the trauma and the terror Canadians experience when the Working It Out threatens to fail. Working It Out is the narrative which allows Canadian liberals to soar with pride at how far our nation’s social policies have come, while simultaneously challenging the Powers That Be to do much, much better. The work is never done.
So, the Story of Canada in Sochi. Chapter One: An institution of global idealism is corrupted, from without and within. Chapter Two: A nation’s best and brightest overcome great obstacles to win Gold for their fans. If you skip Chapter One, you are naïve at best, or wilfully ignorant at worst. But if Chapter Two bores you, then there’s something wrong with your soul. Even though I still feel troubled by our engagement with Sochi, I’m glad we didn’t boycott the Games. If we stand even the faintest chance of Working It Out, we need the whole story.
Photo: Site of the Winter Olympics, 2014. Photo credit: Global Sports Forum, Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) .