The 2014 Winter Olympics are entering their home stretch, and like a dutiful Canadian, I have been following along faithfully. But this time out I haven’t found it as easy to be swept up in the fervour of the games. Whether this stems from me now being older than most of the athletes competing or just a generally advancing crotchetiness I can’t say.
The Olympics always seem to catalyze a period where jingoism and hand wringing about national self-worth abounds—at least in Canada. Just as new parents are desperate to find evidence that their baby is “remarkable” through trivial accomplishments like holding his head up or rolling over before his peers, so too do insecure patriots ascribe too much importance to winning medals in obscure and arcane events. At times, it’s as though a country’s merits are self-evident if it takes home the bronze in two-man luge, but in doubt if it only gets fourth. This has on occasion led to the mind-blowing spectre of competitors “apologizing” to their countrymen if their performances leave them short of the podium—or sometimes on the podium but short of its top.
Such was the case with poor Patrick Chan, who glumly apologized to the Canadian viewing public after taking home “only” the silver medal in men’s figure skating. Chan had accepted the mantle of gold-medal favourite before the games and if he had skated clean in his free program, likely would have won gold. But even still, why is he apologizing? He’s a three-time world champion and an Olympic silver medallist. Hasn’t he done enough to burnish Canada’s reputation?
When the Olympics roll around our interests as sports fans become a mile wide and an inch deep. Many of us become experts on sports we follow not at all. Most of us don’t watch Grand Prix events in skiing or luge and bobsled competitions in non-Olympic years. Only a few diehards even bother to keep up with the figure skating world championships. As such, we come to rely on the media to spoon-feed us back-story and simple narratives. Some of the tropes we’ve allowed to go unchallenged in 2014 include:
- Patrick Chan is a consistently great skater but not a transcendent one.
- Bode Miller is a generational talent but one who never lived up to his full potential.
- Lockheed Martin and Under Armour screwed over US speed skaters by designing aerodynamic bodysuits that didn’t work.
And we forget the things that don’t fit. We forget about Chan’s three world championships or dismiss their importance. We forget about all the medals Bode Miller has won at the Olympics and his brilliance on the FIS circuit. We ignore all the factors and intangibles that go into speed skating besides the suit that competitors wear.
Viewers and the press love long-running excellence, they love redemptive stories, they love athletes who underwhelmed in the past only to succeed in the present on the grandest of stages. They love a story like Canada’s Denny Morrison, who after past struggles finally found individual success in Sochi.
But the arc of public and media affection only bends one way. Athletes who found past glory and present-day struggle at the Olympics disappear from consciousness faster then Boxer going to the glue factory in Animal Farm. For confirmation just ask Christine Nesbitt, Shaun White or Shani Davis, national heroes once, afterthoughts now after non-medal showings in 2014.
And while I understand that this is probably how things have to go in today’s media environment, there is something perverse about how the whole dynamic plays out. We’re enamoured with our sporting heroes for a week or two and then we’re indifferent, our passion cooled faster than the heating-element on an induction stovetop. Until another four years pass, when we dare to ask, “What you can you do for us now?”
So, to Canada’s athletes at Sochi and at future Olympiads, I am going to take a page out of the Ayn Rand playbook and encourage you to embrace selfishness. Don’t martyr yourselves on the senseless rock of national pride. Don’t compete for me or for the people of Canada and our fickle affections. We have the attention span of mayflies; do well and we will embrace you, but even then only fleetingly. Instead, compete for yourselves, for the love of sport, for memories that will endure.