Monday, March 01, 2010

Will London be as British as Vancouver is Canadian?

There has been a lot of negative press about the Vancouver Olympics here in London, UK. I have been surprised by it, but concluded that the roots are an underlying worry and some fear mongering about the upcoming London Summer Olympics in 2012. It was nice to read a more positive spin in this article on BBC entitled "Will London be as British as Vancouver is Canadian?" by Ollie Williams (printed below). Will London be as British as Vancouver is Canadian? It is hard to convey just how Canadian these Winter Games have been. Multi-Olympic veterans to whom I've spoken are in awe of it. Even Canadians seem occasionally taken aback. Vancouver is a city painted red and white, partying long and loud into every night on the crest of a wave of national fervour. Each gold medal is a new excuse for Canada to celebrate the fact of its existence. I have sat and watched as floods of fans transformed empty venues into a seething mass of maple leaves - nowhere more so than the Olympic ice hockey arena, Canada Hockey Place, for the women's gold medal game on Thursday. Enclosed arenas amplify noise at the best of times, and the crescendo as the Canadian team took to the ice must have made the home team feel 100ft tall. It is hard to recall one fan who did not turn up in national colours. That has been replicated at every venue, in every event, and out on the streets no matter the day of the week. Is that simply what happens to Olympic host cities, or has this been a peculiarly Canadian phenomenon? Will London 2012 feel like this? Canadian supporters raise the roof for their women's hockey team. Photo: Getty Images Any public place in Canada is operating beyond fever pitch as these Games slowly reach a close. On one occasion, we were treated to impromptu renditions of the Canadian national anthem three times in one cacophonously patriotic half-hour. Queues of Canadian fans waiting to get into venues exhibit similar characteristics. Anywhere a crowd of more than four or five gathers, it is not long before chants of "Go! Canada! Go!" are struck up, to the ringing of cowbells and honking of passing horns. "The most important thing is the enthusiasm of the people," said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge earlier in the week. "I have never seen a city embrace the Games in this way." Team GB chef de mission Andy Hunt added: "All of us have been totally amazed by the way the Canadian nation has been absolutely entwined with these Games. The challenge for us now is to make sure the home team is really at the centre of the London 2012." And therein lies a critical difference. The Canadian national sport is ice hockey, and there was never any doubt that the home hockey teams would be front and centre of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. Every second Canadian on the streets is wearing a hockey jersey - the other is wearing the Canadian flag as a cape. The women's team have already made themselves heroes and the entire nation will stop what it is doing, don the national colours and watch, impatiently, when the men take to the ice in Sunday's final. Canadians will wait for the chance, the right, to celebrate their status as the finest hockey nation in the world. This is a country so secure in its patriotism, so comfortable with its international reputation for "nice", that when the American women appeared close to tears collecting their silver medals, Canadian fans thundered "U-S-A! U-S-A!" in sympathy. (Would English football fans do that for players from a rival team?) Whether it's as easy to be secure in feeling British is a different question - one you could write books on, let alone an Olympic blog. But Britain as a sports team has always felt like a tricky concept for much of its population to grasp. Britain's constituent nations play the sports about which they are most passionate as separate entities - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Football would be the British equivalent to ice hockey in Canada, but how many people are fans of British football? Type "Team GB" into a search engine and on the first page of results you will find a website dedicated to opposing a British football team at London 2012. Fans of football, cricket and rugby, which many British people would list first if asked to name sports they follow, are English, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh. They are unlikely to identify themselves, first and foremost, as British when it comes to sport. Among British sports fans you find some of the most passionate supporters in the world. Think of the Scottish football team's Tartan Army, or the English cricket team's Barmy Army. And British fans will go nuts for any successful GB athlete and back them all the way to the podium. But the way that manifests itself may look very different to the enthusiasm for the act of being Canadian which home supporters here exhibit. You might argue it will be success in the events themselves which inspires the public, but that hasn't seemed the case here. On the first night of the Games, drenched at the foot of Cypress Mountain in the wake of moguls skier Jenn Heil's failure to secure gold for Canada, her legions of supporters were as vocal and boisterously Canadian as those victorious fans at the women's hockey. For Canada, it feels as though the entire Games has been an outlet for a national consciousness in existence for many, many decades. The raw, patriotic energy was there, and the Winter Olympics simply channelled it to spectacular ends. Does the challenge for London 2012 organisers lie in channelling the patriotism of individual nations into that British team, or in generating that patriotism in the first place? Will Trafalgar Square become a living, breathing carpet of red, white, and blue, or will the London Games be an entirely different affair? Will being British at London 2012 feel like being Canadian at Vancouver 2010? And is it necessarily bad if it doesn't? I'm looking forward to finding out.


LK said...

It's so interesting to read an outsider's perspective on Vancouver's experience. It has been a strangely extreme experience of patriotism that we've seen here, and those of us who are Canadian know that that in itself is bizarre and unusual for us. That said, it has been amazing and really entertaining to see how excited Canadians have been to support their athletes.

Someone might tell the writer though, that Hockey isn't Canada's national sport. Lacrosse is. :) But you'd never know...

sue said...

I agree - really interesting article, thanks for posting it. I saw the Olympics as a Canadian in the US (I don't have a TV and didn't really watch any though) - and was SO RELIEVED (along with all the other Canadians I know here, many of whom don't care about hockey of course) that the men won the hockey gold.

Anyhow - I feel pretty proud of our country!