Why the Olympics Have Been Bad for Canada


Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As we approach the final weekend of the most calamity-prone Olympics in recent memory, even a casual onlooker must conclude that the Vancouver Games have brought a litany of humiliations for Canada. A mechanical failure marred the climactic scene of the opening ceremony, a miscue immediately dubbed the first "erectile malfunction" in Olympic history. A Georgian luger died on the Games' first day, the victim of a perilous track that should never have been approved for use. A barricade at an Olympic concert collapsed a few days later, leaving 19 people with injuries. And despite the country's reputation for excelling at winter sports, Canada is in fourth place in the medals count, behind Germany, Norway, and its southern neighbor, the United States. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Olympics would be "Canada's time to shine". Instead, we got the Glitch Games.

Trust this conflicted Canuck, who's followed the proceedings with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, when he says that the Games will leave their host country with a Canadian Club-worthy hangover. Canada's first casualty at the Games was its national unity. The near complete absence of French-Canadian dignitaries and French language programming at the opening ceremony has ignited a new cycle of recriminations between French-speaking Quebec and the rest of Canada. While it's tempting to dismiss this tiff as the quaint quarreling of a hopelessly provincial country, Quebec makes up a quarter of Canada's population and has come close to separating from the country on multiple occasions. With characteristic clumsiness, the Vancouver Olympic Committee has woken up the proverbial elephant in the igloo, stoking regional and cultural resentments .

Canada's official credo of "peace, order, and good government" has also taken a hit on the streets of Vancouver, where battles between police and protestors have raged throughout the Games. The demonstrators are quite the motley crew—environmentalists, anti-poverty activists, the occasional hockey fan led astray by his beer goggles—yet events like the Poverty Olympics, a mock opening ceremony held by 12 anti-Olympic groups, have successfully undermined the feel good globo-blather of the IOC. With one of the highest concentrations of intravenous drug users in the world, Vancouver's Downtown East Side has received particular attention in the international press, and rightly so. Canada's poorest neighborhood is a powerful symbol of the mismatched priorities that lead local and federal governments to invest billions of dollars in state-of-the-art athletic facilities while neglecting the most vulnerable citizens living in their shadow.

Olympic enthusiasts will surely dismiss such critiques as sour grapes from the anti-globalization crowd, the perennially piqued folks who object to any gathering with overtones of multinational cooperation. But the argument that the Olympics' enormous, fast-track infrastructure projects put a strain on public coffers has undeniable resonance across Canada. It was only a few years ago that the perpetually bankrupt, pothole-ridden city of Montreal was able pay off the debts accrued from its own Olympic Games. The 1976 Olympic Games. The Vancouver Games look to continue this trend, costing British Columbia taxpayers somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 billion. When the Olympic Village's private developers began generating enormous cost overruns, forcing the City of Vancouver to prop them up them with hundreds of millions in loans, beleaguered locals coined another unflattering moniker for the 21st Olympiad: "The Bailout Games."

Canadians are resilient. We'll weather these public policy headaches and the PR nightmare of the past two weeks as surely as we withstand a blitzkrieg of blizzards every winter. But Canada is a small country with a big inferiority complex. We crave the approval of other countries and none more so than the juggernaut on our southern border. Which brings us to the ultimate humiliation Canada has suffered at these woe-begotten Olympics Games: losing to the United States in men's hockey for the first time in 50 years. More than softwood lumber or oil from the Alberta tar sands, hockey players are Canada's most abundant natural resource, accounting for over half the talent in the National Hockey League. The nation's hockey prowess is the one subject on which a Canadian's characteristic modesty is sure to dissipate faster than snow in Death Valley, revealing a potent—dare I say American?—streak of overconfidence. Deeply humbled, but still fighting its way through the competition, the men's team must win every one of its remaining games or provoke a crisis of national identity.

Sunday offers a last chance to make amends, with the men's hockey championship and the closing ceremony bringing the Glitch Games to a merciful close. If the Canadian team makes the final, expect relentless checking from its bruising defenders and—fingers crossed—a gold-worthy performance by Sid "The Kid" Crosby. At the closing ceremony, look for a solemn memorial to Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili and an outsized, cavity-inducing dose of joie de vivre from the province of Quebec. (Paging Celine Dion!) Whereas some countries flourish as the world's policemen or captains of industry, Canada may be at its best in the humble role of a janitor, cleaning up sticky situations at home and abroad with painstaking cultural sensitivity. For the people of Vancouver, unfortunately, the mess will stick around long after the last athlete has checked out of town.