My life has been composed of two continental halves, a pair of dramatically different geographical and cultural time-zones. I was born in Britain and lived there until the age of 26. Then, after meeting a Canadian who was willing to marry me I moved to Toronto, where I have lived for more than two decades. Proving that love works and that Canadian women are invincibly naive!
The differences between the two countries are numerous and often disguised by a common language but as the Winter Olympics in Vancouver arrives the one that is particularly obvious is how Britain and Canada regard the sporting jamboree. Of course it’s not just Britain and Canada. It’s Africa, south Asia, Latin America and half of Europe and much of Australasia versus what’s left. Those who skate on ice against those who slip over on it, those who think hockey is manly and fast and those who know it`s generally played by schoolgirls on fields.
In most of the world the Olympics mean the assembling every four years of a truly international group of people – black, brown, white, all regions, all backgrounds, competing for medals in a dazzling variety of sports. What happens in the winter in cold places in at best a minor digression and often absurdly irrelevant. Speed-skating and shooting while out skiing? No meaning and relevance to the majority of the world`s population.
Then there is ski-jumping, which has always baffled people who live in those parts of the world – the vast bulk of it – where there is no skiing, let alone jumping on them. The question Brits and their friends ask is if people are good skiers why would they not compete in the major skiing events rather than in falling off the end of the slope? This reached ridiculous proportions some years when Eddie The Eagle competed for Britain and became figure of fun. A silly and entirely non-heroic icon of failure. It gave him charm but Chariots of Fire it was not.
Ski-jumping itself became a comic opera here in Canada the past few months because the national women’s team demanded the right to participate. They were told that there simply weren’t enough female teams in the world and that to introduce the sport at an Olympic level would be impossible – it’s not an international sport when there are only three teams! The response was to appeal to various human rights commissions and courts and argue that gender equality was more important than sporting fairness. The courts and commissions sided with the Olympic organisers. The women’s logic was extraordinary – if followed, why not ski-jumping for people who can’t ski-jump and skating for people who can`t skate, so as to provide equal opportunity to everybody?
Also in Canada people will watch with the standard patriotic commitment as their team tries to win a gold in hockey. The game is a national obsession and outside of war unites the place as nothing else. Yet it’s only the fourth sport in the US, second to soccer in the other countries that take it seriously – such as Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic – and hardly even professional in some of the other nations competing for medals. It’s just not an international event. Women’s hockey even less so, with only two countries seriously fighting to win.
This is not the Olympic spirit at all. Success based on climate and weather rather than magnificence and supremacy. Which leads to the more troubling note that a great deal of this has to do with class, race and cash. To be crude, much of what we’ll see in the Winter games concerns rich white people having fun. Canada and the United States, Switzerland and Austria, Scandinavians and assorted North Europeans with some Japanese and, recently, Chinese rivals. Even in Canada itself you will see an overwhelmingly white and middle-class group of people representing a country that is increasingly diverse.
Of course there is sometimes an African who can ski or a Jamaican bobsleigh team but these are novelties and to a certain extent their treatment borders on the offensive – all jolly good fun as we give a big slap on the back to those people who try so hard. Authentic sporting purity is achieved when everybody competes. Run, jump, wrestle, throw. Every race in every race. The poor man from the obscure African town, the boy from the ghetto, the woman from the Balkans whose parents had never left their village. It costs nothing to learn to run, which is why the poorest nations often dominate. When we watch the real Olympics, just as with the soccer World Cup, we see the world reflected and not just an overwhelmingly pale, seasonal aspect of that world.
Then again, most Canadians will consider me a sad, bad person who doesn’t appreciate the greatness of curling and the nuances of artistic ice-dancing. Perhaps they have a point. Ice is for putting in drinks, not for playing on.
Michael Coren is a TV host and columnist in Canada. www.michaelcoren.com
For a different take on the Winter Olympics, read Brian Lilley’s views on the games as an inspiration.