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The Olympic Games and Canada’s Underdog Self-Perception

Wenlock and Mandeville, the Olympic Dildos

Although I’ve been following the 2012 Summer Olympics in London over the past week and a half relatively closely, there hasn’t been much that’s happened yet that has sparked a particular desire to blog about the Games. There have been major sports stories, certainly. American swimmer Michael Phelps set a new mark for total career Olympic medals with 22, which is a notable achievement, even if it was assisted (inflated?) by the excessive disciplines of his sport and the strength of the well-funded US swim team (more than a third of those career medals came as a member of relay teams). Usain Bolt of Jamaica repeated as 100 metre sprint champion, Britain’s athletes have performed well (especially in cycling and athletics), and there was even a scandal to exercise the outrage muscles of the media and the casual sports-watching public (albeit in the marginal sport of badminton).

Perhaps the closest I came to weighing in on the quadrennial spectacle was after the bizarre, overwhelming, and stunningly tasteful opening ceremonies, masterminded by Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. In the end, better minds such as Roger Ebert and Simon Schama said mostly what I might have about it with both fewer and finer words, but it did strike me as a grand, animated metaphor for the endurance and eccentricity of British culture. It also had flat-out fantastic soundtrack of superb Brit music. Let us compare: the London ceremonies featured Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal, the Vancouver ceremonies in 2010 trotted out Nickelback and Hedley. Who wins that one, I wonder?

Still from the perhaps ill-conceived ‘Tribute to Isengard’ portion of the program.

Most fundamentally, though, little has been written in these parts about the Olympics because, from a Canadian perspective, they have not been terribly distinguished games, as far as individual athletic performances go. With the sole Canadian gold medal thus far coming in women’s trampoline (good for Rosie McLennan and all, and it’s a fine accomplishment, but it’s trampoline), a solid swimming silver from Ryan Cochrane in the 1500 m freestyle, and most of the other medals being of the bronze variety, London 2012 has not been kind to Canada-first enthusiasts. The Canadian media has scrambled to compensate, filling their time with inspirational puff pieces on medal hopes and focusing unduly on the podium finishes quasi-Canadian swimmer Missy Franklin, an already-dominant 17-year-old who, of course, competes for the US. After the national high of the Vancouver Winter Games, one could call the current competition a bit of a disappointment, if it did not mostly conform to Canada’s status as a tertiary power in the Summer Games.

This result also conforms to the Canadian self-image as a plucky but usually unsuccessful underdog nation, forever in the shadow of our attention-grabbing, world-changing southern neighbours. Even if this image has been made increasingly out-of-date by a robust economy and sweeping demographic change, our public discourse continues to cling to it like white Americans cling to guns and religion, to borrow the formulation of a certain sitting President. Partly for this reason, the defining Canadian moment of these Games is likely to be the Canadian women’s soccer team’s memorably epic extra time loss to the U.S. in the semi-finals yesterday.

So the ball is the 49th Paralell in this analogy, yes?

It was, unquestionably, one of the greatest, most tense, most dramatic football matches I’ve ever seen, regardless of the gender of the players (anyone who labours under the misconception that the women’s game is of a lower stature than the men’s, especially at the higher levels, could no longer do so after watching that game). It had an individual performance of the highest quality from Canada’s star forward Christine Sinclair, who three times surgically dissected the U.S. defence to give Canada the lead, twice late in the second half with all-world headers. And it had a major, game-swinging controversial call from the referee that lead eventually to a late American equalizer from the penalty spot, a call that, while technically within the rules, was so far out of the norm for the circumstances that it would serve to point to either disastrous incompetence or (more likely) hidden bias.

As with most sporting controversies, one’s perspective seems to depend entirely on one’s chosen (or un-chosen) side, with the tribe one belongs to. American sports media outlets labeled the Canadian players who complained about the awful call whiners and implied that it was all another minor speedbump on the road to inevitable American hegemony anyway. Jingoistic arrogance is as ingrained in American coverage of the Olympics as NBC’s tape-delayed televising, and as unlikely to bend to increasing audience dissatisfaction with it.

But the Canadian response has been every bit as regrettable, interspersing paternalistic pride at the resilience of “our girls” with overheated “we wuz robbed” outrage. The sense of being eternally wronged, of trying hard, but being ultimately defeated by not only a more powerful opponent but by the slanted system as well, is essential to the underdog position. Canadians are well-versed in its imperatives; they tend to know precisely where to stand, often without knowing it.

Beyond all of the fuzzy nationalistic soppery of the Vancouver Games and its co-opting by corporations looking to hawk their wares, what was best about the strong showing of the Canadian team two years back and the popular celebration of the achievement was that it offered the promise of a post-underdog discourse in Canada. It represented a potential opportunity to move on from that silly set of anachronistic, diminuating self-conceptions that have plagued the country’s sense of its own worth for too long. A chance to stop pretending that we are a junior partner in the worldwide democratic capitalist feedback loop of exploitation and consumption and accept that we have a pretty key seat at that particular table.

But here we stand again, in the old footprints. Disappointment and outrage over sporting results that did not break our way is, well, the old way (and reflects our lack of experience with incompetent and/or corrupt officials in international football, which are hardly limited to the women’s game, that’s for sure). If Olympic results mean anything to larger national conceptions (and it’s clear that they do, whether they strictly ought to or not), then the mass reaction to the showing of the Canadian women’s soccer team as well as the Canadian Olympic Team as a whole in London suggests that old habits die hard, especially in the momentarily unfrozen north.

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