Sunday, February 22, 1998
The Games of fame & shame
The image of the Japanese man standing at the airport in Osaka, proudly wearing his volunteer's jacket, holding a piece of cardboard that read "Canada."
He was smiling and bowing, bowing and smiling, knowing none of the people he was greeting, knowing none of the words he was hearing.
This was my introduction to the Games of Nagano, an Olympics of many contradictions and customs, and more than two weeks later there was but one unending truism: These were the most polite Olympic Games ever, a Games of smiling faces, welcoming the world to this small and maze-like Japanese city.
If there is one montage that best describes the Olympic feel of Nagano, far from the athletic competition, it is a montage of people helping, not always understanding, not always certain what to do, but forever more charming than the place in which they live.
The Canadian Olympic Association people will call this the best Winter Olympics ever for Canada and say it with a straight face, and that is proof that numbers indeed do lie.
For every moment of excellence and every triumph there was a snowball of disappointment for Canadians. Yes, the medal count -- six gold, five silver, four bronze -- was better than ever. But rarely has a Games for Canada come to an end with so much to wonder about.
There was Pierre Lueders and David MacEachern winning gold in bobsledding, and there was Team Canada winning nothing in hockey.
There was Catriona Le May Doan, so successful and so charming, winning gold in speed skating, and there was Jean-Luc Brassard, so troubled, winning nothing and blaming his troubles on carrying the flag in the opening ceremony.
There was Sandra Schmirler and her rink crying as the gold medals were presented for curling, and there was Mike Harris, curling 25%, coming up so small and so snarky in the gold-medal game.
And the mirror for all of it: The rise and fall and rise again of Ross Rebagliati, gold medallist, disqualified, a police suspect, and then a medallist once again. His Olympic roller-coaster ride almost exemplifies what these Games were for Canada, except in the end he left with his prize.
Not everyone else was so fortunate.
Canadians didn't win the most medals here, but they did set a standard for headlines. The Rebagliati story. The Elvis injury. The French-English mess. Paul Savage took his pants down. Glass fell from the athletes' village and injured a bobsledder. The stunning arrival of the Canadian hockey team. An American speaking inappropriately to a Canadian woman hockey player. Brassard blaming the flag for his skiing problems. Myriam Bedard blaming her problems on bad wax.
This is why the Canadian numbers don't begin to tell the story. Not every medal and not every sporting event can be treated equally, but two mattered desperately to Canadians -- the performance of the men's hockey team and the performance of Elvis Stojko.
Stojko was brave and hurt and won a medal he didn't want. The hockey team didn't even get that far.
There was Stojko, skating last, with four minutes and 40 seconds to perform on a leg that wouldn't co-operate. And there was the ice dance team of Victor Kraatz and Shae-Lynn Bourne, like the hockey team getting no medal, but unlike the hockey team deserving one.
There also was the Canadian freestyle ski team, nowhere near the podium. Before the Olympics, coach Peter Judge said he expected the team to win two to five medals. It won seven at last year's world championships, but won nothing at these Games.
More was expected from the women's hockey team that won silver, and from speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon, who won one medal instead of two.
So it was the most medals ever for Canada, and maybe the greatest disappointments ever. Who would have believed Canada would come home in fourth place in hockey? Who would can believe that, even now?
These were a Games of great contradiction for Canada, of wondrous highs and stunning lows. The most medals and the most disappointments.
And in the end, too much emptiness.
There was a face of these Olympic Games, an angular face belonging to a 25-year-old Austrian bricklayer named Hermann Maier.
He wasn't only the most prominent face of the Games: He was the spirit, the emotion and the magic.
An Olympics is nothing if not a series of sporting moments and memories. And replays to be shown on television and forever transplanted in our minds.
The moment forever frozen is Maier's frightening crash on the downhill course. He twisted, he turned, he bounced off a fence. And miraculously, he got up. He got up, brushed off the snow and somehow limped away.
He will not watch the replay of his crash and his mother, watching at home, had to be sedated afterward. But even more astounding than his post-crash recovery is what happened in the days to follow.
Maier won gold medals in the super-G and giant slalom races, and he won a world's admiration. "I'm not a great hero," he said, being modest. "But I am happy."
He was the face of the Games, but not the only face. There were other moments to remember, international moments.
There was Hiroyasu Shimizu, all 5-foot-3 of him, all legs and heart, winning Japan's first Winter Games gold medal in 26 years. There he was, setting a world record in speed skating, dedicating the race to his late father, setting the table for the greatest Olympics in Japanese history.
Suddenly, Japan had its hero and soon it would have four gold medals. In its entire previous Winter Games history, Japan has just three gold medals. "This is the greatest day of my life," said Shimizu, and an entire nation cheered and cried.
I saw so much the past few weeks, so much of it unforgettable:
Catriona Le May Doan and Susan Auch finished 1-2 in a speed skating race; a 40-kilometre relay race in cross-country skiing was won in a photo finish; a long program in figure skating by Philippe Candeloro of France made you want to stand and applaud; the best two-man teams in the world completed four bobsled runs, not a blink of an eye between them; two gold medals were won by Marianne Timmer, the speed skating daughter of a sheep farmer; and there was the excruciating drama of Canada and the Czech Republic playing hockey.
These were an Olympic Games with many startling moments: The smiles on the faces of the local children; the honesty of the people who returned lost credit cards and lost wallets on a daily basis; the valiant attempts at English by those who didn't speak the language.
I will miss the people but not their country and not their customs. And I leave here with another image impossible to escape. It is the sad, haunting eyes of Wayne Gretzky, who like his team expected so much and in the end left with so little.