There were ups and downs in the recent Olympic Winter Games for Canada’s athletes, for sure. After the big high of the first few days in curling, Rachel Homan’s crash and burn in women’s curling was a notable disappointment. But it was more than offset by so many good things happening in other arenas. It’s become expected, in recent decades, that Canadians will win their share of medals. It’s a far cry from the days of Canada as also-rans.
Does anybody remember the 1972 Winter Olympics? One medal for Canada. That was Karen Magnussen’s silver in figure skating. Canada didn’t even enter a hockey team in protest of the absurdity of the ‘amaterur-only’ rules that so favoured the Eastern Bloc countries.
The pent-up national frustration that arose out of that, by the way, was very much a factor in the ‘Summit Series’ of hockey that took place later that same year. We were finally (finally!) going to be able to show what we could do in the game of hockey, against those Soviets who masqueraded as amateurs.
Did we ever show them! (Sort of). And they showed us, playing our crew of NHL superstars to pretty much a deadlock in an eight-game series.
There was a lot going on there besides mere hockey. There was the big question of why this wintry nation just didn’t measure up, Games after Games. Hockey was one thing – how about every other bloody sport? Oh there was the odd exception: Magunussen, as mentioned above. Nancy Green in downhill skiining in 1968. Barbara Ann Scott in figure skating in 1948. Kerrin Lee Gartner in 1992. But mostly we were skunked. We didn’t measure up.
What changed? One major thing was the introduction of new sports. Our kids were (and are) on the cutting edge of some of these – the so called ‘extreme’ events on snowboards and skis. The addition of curling was right in our wheelhouse as well and we were in early and strongly in short-track speedskating.
With the demise of the amateurs-only rule, the playing field was leveled in hockey, much to our benefit. The other change has been greater support for amateur sport – by government and corporations. It has allowed athletes to be more than weekend warriors and has put this winter nation up where it belongs – meaning capable of contending for medals in many different events.
There are still plenty of crashing disappointments – but along with them come unexpected delights. Gold medals in half-pipe, for example, and something called ‘ski-cross.’
The 2018 Olympic story will likely be viewed in hindsight as a high point in Canadian performances. Fortunes wax and wane and there’s no reason to think there isn’t a valley coming after this peak. On the other hand, there is every reason to be optimistic about our chances in 2022, when our men’s and women’s curling teams will be again among the favourites. And our hockey teams will again show their professional counterparts a thing or two about playing with real passion.