I’ve always wanted to attend an Olympic Games. In November 2008 I was even more excited when I was offered a job at Vanoc; a year later I came back to UBC a bit disappointed and very relieved. One of the negatives of being a member of the workforce for an Olympics is sacrificing up event time to ensure the events are delivered: you may work at the Richmond Olympic Oval for 13 days during the Games and see perhaps one race there in that time. Had I stayed in my paid role I would not have been able to enjoy as much of these Games as I did. Even on TV.
What follows is a disjointed narrative of my Games experiences as a spectator. It’s more descriptive than analytical: I’m trying merely to capture a sense of what happened and what it was like for me. Your mileage may vary; in fact you might find all boring…
Tickets for the 2010 Games were allocated in 4 phases. In the first round (which was a lottery) I requested several “ city packs” for my family (10 of whom who would be visiting) and lots for me. Everything for them came through, but the only thing I landed were 2 tickets to the women’s aerials finals and 4 nosebleed tickets for the final night of short track speed skating. However, concerns about cost meant I didn’t give 2nd or 3rd choices for events—which probably cost me some tickets. I went for the cheapest seat for every event, as did probably a lot of Canadians.
In the second round I was extremely lucky: I was out of the virtual “waiting room” within 2 minutes of the start of sales. I grabbed tickets for my family to two marquis events: men’s halfpipe and ladies’ 1000m speed skating. I’m still not sure those folks realize how lucky they—we—were in landing those. Leading up to the Opening Ceremony both were being scalped for 3-4 times face value in the official “resale” (scalp) ticket site. I was even luckier for myself. I managed to get tickets for the gold medal events in men’s and women’s hockey, men’s curling, ladies’ figure skating, and ladies’ 5000m speed skating. In round three I got nuthin’. A month before the Opening Ceremony the headliners were announced for the Victory Ceremonies at BC Place: I immediately grabbed tickets for Nelly Furtado.
A couple of weeks before the Games someone tipped me off to the availability of seats that were partially obstructed for figure skating. Thus I was able to grab men’s short and free program and ice dance free program tickets, mostly single seats just for myself. That same week I happened upon a single seat for the women’s snowboard cross event, marked up a mere $35 (the admin charges, in other words) in the resale site.
So I had a lot of tickets to a lot of great events. There was a lot of luck involved, but I was also persistent in checking and rechecking the vancouver2010.com/tickets site, as well as calling the ticket box office from time to time. Persistence paid off, big time!
Nelly, Mäelle, Marianne et Clara
My friends Joseph, Anne-Rae and Josefina from work (UBC work not Vanoc work) and I attended the Nelly Furtado victory ceremony/concert on Sunday 14 February. Nelly sand for about an hour (great value for $50), most of her big hits. Wow that girl can sing! We also got to see Jennifer Heil receive her silver medal for ladies moguls—and were in the stadium when Alexandre Bilodeau earned his gold medal for men’s moguls! So on day two of competition, the Canuck Curse (two hosted Olympics; no gold medals) was broken. BC Place went nuts when they announced his win. I think that’s when folks here in Vancouver realized something amazing was unfolding. “The party’s just starting” was Bilodeau’s comment when asked whether he knew how significant his gold medal was. Too right M. Bilodeau!
Tuesday 16 February was ladies’ snowboard cross up on Cypress Mountain. Most folks know that the warmest January on record washed most of the snow off Cypress—those of us with seasons passes know this especially well (grrrr). But while the mountainside was bare, the field of play was in great shape—including the massive final jump on the cross run. When the sun came out, conditions were perfect.
Ladies’ snowboard cross was the only event I was willing to pay scalper prices for—I was considering going as much as 2X face value. Why? Two words: Mäelle Ricker. Ricker has represented Canada in snowboard for well over a decade. She’s had top 5 finishes in both halfpipe and snowboard cross at the Olympics, has been overall world cup champion for cross several times too. She’s won pretty much everything there is to win in snowboard cross—except an Olympic medal. In 2004 she was quite literally be knocked out (unconscious, in fact) in the final.
Her day on Cypress started badly. There was fog, a 2 hour start delay and then several pauses when the fog rolled in and out. Both she and the other Canadian in the event, defending bronze medallist Dominique Maltais, crashed on their first qualification run in the fog; those whose first runs were later got a clear course and much faster times. In cross each boarder races alone twice, with the faster of their two runs determining their seeding for the 4 racer heats later that day. Maltais, it turns out, had been injured on a training run earlier that morning and would crash out on her second run as well.
I was more than a little worried for Mäelle. However I heard an archetypal snowboarder dude said to someone else in the crowd “no worries, Mäelle’s gonna rawq it!” And did she ever! Her second qualification run was 3rd fastest of the day. After that she won the next 4 races—and Canada’s second gold medal and first by a Canadian woman on home soil. What makes the story even sweeter is that Mäelle grew up in West Vancouver and learned to snowboard on Cypress Mountain, where she earned her gold medal! It was Monday and I was already happy—I’d seen Canada get gold at home! Everything else was gonna be a bonus…
On Wednesday I had a ticket to the women’s 500m short track finals, thanks to an online Aussie friend who couldn’t use it. Two Canadians, Kalyna Roberge and Jessica Gregg, were ranked top 5 in the world; the third, Marianne St. Gelais, had been world junior champion in the distance in 2008. Short track is all about surprises and though all three made it to the semi-finals, only Gregg and St. Gelais made it to the final. And it was St. Gelais, the “rookie,” who earned a silver medal.
I also got to attend the women’s 5000m (long track) speed skating event. Clara Hughes came into the Games as the defending Olympic champion and defending world silver medallist. Most who follow the sport expected the amazing Martina Sablikova from the Czech Republic to win easily (and she did), but expected Clara to have a very good shot at silver or bronze. In the end Stephanie Beckert of Germany earned silver and Clara bronze. Clara Hughes is now tied with Cindy Klassen as the most decorated Canadian Olympian ever (1 gold, 1 silver, 4 bronze medals), but she’s earned both Summer (road cycling) and Winter (speed skating) multiple medals–something no other athlete anywhere has ever done.
Paddy boy, Mahler and heartbreak
The same day of Ricker’s victory I joined my UBC colleague Linda at the men’s short program. Our “obstructed” seats for the session—in a pattern that would be repeated for the other two events for which I bought these 10% discounted seats—were blocked perhaps 3% at the bottom left of our field of vision. I had to make my way from Cypress (the snowboard ended an hour late due to delays, so I had to skip the flower ceremony) to the Pacific Coliseum and missed about 8 skaters. I arrived just as Evgeni Plushenko took to the ice: the short program favours men like him who are technically proficient and who can cram some high scoring jumps into what is a very narrow window of opportunity. Canada’s Patrick Chan—or Paddy boy, as I call him (my Da’s nickname)—skated better than most but not his best. You can’t win a medal in figure skating just by skating a great short program…but you can certainly disadvantage yourself with even a small mistake. Sixth going into the free skate wasn’t impossible for him to make up (for 3rd; 1st and 2nd were well out of reach with a 10+ point deficit), but Paddy boy’s long program had a few bobbles—and only one of the men ahead of him floundered. So 5th place it was. L
Almost a week later was the Ice Dance free program. Going into the Games, Virtue and Moir were Canada’s only real shot at figure skating gold. In the compulsory dance and original dance all went to plan: they scored in the top 2 in the former and handily won the latter, giving them a clear lead. Barring a dramatic misstep on their part, it was between them and their American training mates Davis and White for gold.
For me dance has always been the figure skating discipline where few who demonstrate technical proficiency are able to actually move me. Both these teams are an exception: both skated brilliantly, but it might have come down to the music and what each team’s choice offered. Davis and White skated to Phantom of the Opera—beautiful, but somewhat hackneyed. Virtue and Moir selected Mahler’s 5th symphony, not only one of the most beautiful pieces of classical music, but one that matches their athletic, romantic, intense style very well. Just before Virtue and Moir skated, two of my Vanoc pals Virginia and Meghan (my bosses, actually) joined me and we watched Canada earn its first ever Ice Dance Olympic gold medal. As a bonus, figure skating holds its victory ceremonies on-venue the same night. So we got to sing O Canada! That’s a second gold medal for Canada I saw live!!!
By then we’d all heard about the death of Thérese Rochette, JoAnnie Rochette’s mother. Like everyone, I watched her skate her short program on TV holding my breath; like everyone I cried when she fell apart after skating so beautifully. Meghan and I were at the ladies’ free program and hoped for a fairytale ending to the story. We knew, however, that in mathematical terms it would be equally difficult for JoAnnie to move up to silver (no one could catch the magical Kim Yu-Na for gold); similarly JoAnnie could make several mistakes and still get bronze. The couple of jumps she downgraded were the difference between bronze and silver but who cares: her skating proved her to be a champion.
The mother lode
A couple of hours before JoAnnie’s bronze I attended the women’s gold medal hockey game with my Vanoc pals Virginia, Tronni and Susan. The atmosphere in Canada Hockey Place was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before—or since. The crowd was passionately, cheerfully, 100% in our team’s corner. It was a sea of red and white and hooting and hollering. And we bellowed O Canada as the girls were awarded their gold medals. Team USA looked glum, even sour, but the crowd chanting USA! USA! for them shocked several out of their torpor. “I feel kinda bad for them, but they look bitter,” said Virg. “Well if it had been our team getting the silver they probably would’ve looked the same.” “But it’s not!!!!!!!!” J Gold medal #3; singing O Canada #2!
The next evening was the short track finale: men’s 500m, ladies’ 1000m and men’s 5000m relay. “You know, it’s not unusual for Canada to pick up 2, 3, even 4 medals the last night of short track” I told my seatmates. Sure enough in what was probably the wildest finish of any medal event at the 2010 Games, Charles Hamelin earned gold and François-Louis Tremblay bronze in the 500m. For a good chuckle find the ice-level view of the finish line: Hamelin crosses sideways, the silver medallist on his back with his skates in the air, and Tremblay several second later after having fallen. None of our women made the 1000m final, but the Canadian men dominated the relay, earning gold. Since BC Place was being reconfigured for the Closing Ceremony, all three events’ medals were presented that night on-venue. So we got to sing O Canada two more times—and got a bronze too! That’s five gold medals seen live!
Saturday was the men’s curling final. Unlike our women’s rink—who folded under pressure in the 10th end—Kevin Martin’s rink controlled play for most of the Game, but the Norwegians played very well. With a couple of stones left to throw in the 10th end the crowd broke out in a spontaneous rendition of O Canada. Which we got to sing again about 30 minutes later! Gold medal #6 seen live for me!
Leave no doubt
When I returned to Canada Hockey Place for the men’s final on Sunday morning, I expected the same vibe as the women’s final from a couple of days earlier. It was similar, but not nearly as exuberant. Perhaps there was less confidence about the result: the US had beaten Team Canada in round-robin play. Or perhaps it was the way so many of the guys in the audience—who grew up playing the game—were quick to critique the play of Team Canada when a pass wasn’t perfect, or a shot went wide. At the women’s final the crowd’s energy was high throughout—as was the chanting of Go Canada go!. Too often the crowd at the men’s final would go silent, which doesn’t exactly imbue a team with a sense of being supported by the hometown crowd. Of course every time Vancouver Canuck’s goaltender Roberto Lounge made a save the crowd chanted Luuuuuuu. The negativity got me more than a little bit pissed off: Team USA’s fans cheered exactly the same way throughout the game. Something to think about, my fellow Canucklheads.
“Sudden victory” overtime mean 4 on 4 (rather than 5 on 5) and makes for a lot of pressure—and something of a time warp. I thought Crosby scored his goal a couple of minutes into overtime; I was surprised to find out the next day it was almost 8 minutes in. But even before the horn blasted signifying the goal the crowd did! Everyone was yelling and hugging and jumping and more than a few were crying! Probably like most of Canada, for me it was 50% joy, 50% relief.
About 5 seconds after the goal, my phone buzzed. “Happy birthday, how’s that for a present?” said my brother’s text message. He’d been watching in New York and though he’d hoped for a different outcome he was gracious when it counted most. “Was a great game; could’ve gone either way” was my reply. A week earlier I had passed on joining him and the rest of his family—all 10 of them—at the preliminary Canada-USA men’s hockey game. Part of it was not wanting to sit in the middle of a large, loud (but very good spirited) posse of Team USA fans. But a bigger part was what the game meant to folks on either side of the 49th parallel.
“If you guys win it’s just one of several sports you’re team’s great at, Tom. But for us up here, hockey’s a religion. It’s our game.”
After Team USA’s victory in the preliminary game what impressed Tom and the rest of the family most was how gracious Canadians are regardless of the outcome—save the odd eejit, of course. “So many people congratulated us and said what a great game it had been. Had we been in Salt Lake in 2002 I don’t think our fans would’ve been so gracious.” Perhaps, perhaps not.
That was the 7th gold medal for Canada I saw live. Pretty frickin’ kewl, eh? Eventually my pal Ed (“Aren’t you glad we didn’t sell these tickets for enough $ to pay our mortgages for the year?”) and I made our way out of the Canada Hockey Place. I met my Vanoc pals, who had found me a comp Closing Ceremony ticket. On the floor of BC Place. Best. Birthday. Evar
I expected to be gutted when the cauldron was extinguished. But really I was too tired. Between hosting and volunteering (4 shifts in 17 days, nothing compared to most volunteers) and attending events and trying to maintain some semblance of married life, I was knackered. I wasn’t glad to see the Games end…but I wasn’t sad either. They weren’t perfect operationally—nothing is—but they were perfect.
I started out as a kid hoping to go to an Olympics just once. I ended up writing much of the core volunteer training materials, carrying the torch, helping deliver the Games, sharing them with family from away, and attending every single sport I cared to that was offered in Vancouver (the hoops required to leap through to do any Whistler events just wasn’t worth it to me). And I got to sing our national anthem.
I think the results for Team Canada were awesome. From having never earned gold at home to earning more gold medals at a single Olympic Winter Games than anyone in history is a remarkable achievement on $11million a year. That’s what our share of the costs of 5 years of Own the Podium was folks, $55 million over 5 years. About $1.35 a year per Canadian. At these Games many winter sports powerhouses (Russia, Austria, Italy) underperformed: one, the US, performed higher than even the most overinflated predictions could have anticipated. We didn’t lose to anyone. We earned what we got and we got a lot.
For Canadians—and especially British Columbians and Vancouverites—we got much more. We got permission to be proud and loud. But we didn’t become mindlessly nationalistic. We simply found our voice. We celebrated ourselves. But we also celebrated everyone else’s successes too. We demonstrated that it’s possible to be solidly behind your own team while making all the others feel welcome. We showed that quietly just making sure it all gets done is the best way to ensure success. Canada’s Games had two different mottos in English and in French. We certainly had glowing hearts, but we also demonstrated des plus brilliants exploits, our greatest feats.
We did that regardless of the hardware collected by our athletes. But it sure is shiny and pretty and I’m glad it’s all ours. Ours.