Saturday, February 27, 2010

Of bated breath and common sense

As I write this I'm coming off a hockey-induced high resulting from our boys' narrow 3-2 win over Slovakia tonight. This is what Canada is made of and what hockey and Olympic competition are truly about.

I think it's safe to say most every Canadian held their breath for the entire third period after the Slovaks came back from a 3-0 deficit to score 2 goals and come within striking distance of tying the game. Watching Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo anxiously check the clock and count down the last three minutes, I felt I was right there with him, facing those shots our defense left him open to. For the most part of the match, our boys made Canada proud, save for the last 10 minutes of the game.
It was really a match that got Canadians back on the track of actually thinking about and debating the sport we were involved in, not this fluffy, trivial stuff about the women's hockey team lighting up a celebratory cigar and downing some champagne after their gold medal win. The only thing they did wrong was underestimate the vulture-like, profit-driven mindset of a few hack photographers left in the arena after the game. Or the fact that some team's pitiful souls settled for silver or bronze.

The people who are pitiful IMHO are not those who competed and snagged a medal of any colour or even competed on Canada's world stage (something 99.9 per cent of the rest of us will never come close to doing).
As a reporter I am shamed to see what an obsession with ratings and an ever-enduring negative outlook can do to our profession. Endless headlines regarding athletes 'losing gold' or 'settling' for silver or bronze abound. But what is not in great supply is common sense, such as is displayed by Michael Den Tandt's column, 'TV takes gold in negativity at the Olympics' in the St. Catharines Standard.
Den Tandt writes:

"There's a simple explanation for the torrent of foolish and negative questions that have greeted athlete after Canadian athlete who failed, for one reason or another, to own the podium. Ready? Here it is. There is no news at the Olympics. Don't misunderstand me. Of course it's huge. Of course there's massive and overwhelming viewer interest, worldwide and especially here at home...But...there's a first, second and third place finisher...Hard news is about the unexpected. In a sporting event, often the only potential surprise is the contrast between expectation and reality. Hence the endless puerile quizzing of perceived stars who failed to win a medal, or failed to win a gold medal. Are you sad? Are you mad? How do you feel? Add to that the dizzying number of events, saturation coverage and the sheer number of reporters in Vancouver competing for angles. It's almost inevitable that many come off as armchair Chicken Littles."

Den Tandt is being generous in his assessment. He said this means those reporters were "poorly prepared to cover an event that inherently holds much more human interest than hard news." Human interest doesn't get any street credit these days. It's all about drawing a line in the sand and portraying non-gold medalists as somewhat failures. While I won't say gold isn't the best, it isn't 'the only.' How many of these reporters would have taken on decades in training to compete for a precious few seconds, or minutes? It's easy to speculate with your feet planted firmly on the ground whilst the Olympic-caliber athlete you rip apart jumps a ramp and flips head over heels on skis. Den Tandt goes on to remind readers,

"Aspiring to be the best doesn't mean you're guaranteed to win or that you fail if you don't. The point of the investment is to get you in contention. After that, let the chips fall where they may. That's sport."

 All athletes know this. Not all of us can be gold medalists. That's why there are bronze and silver. To be second, and third, in the world is an incredible accomplishment and I'm proud of all of our Canadian medalists. Sport, as these athletes dedicate their lives to, isn't the one-dimensional soap opera some of these writers and desk jockeys are making it out to be. Shocker - Own the Podium will require many more years of funding to be the great vehicle it's capable of being, just as other countries' programs did. Don't let some second-rate announcer from any country let you forget that, or minimize the accomplishments of our stellar athletes for their own gain.It's interesting, the contrast in behaviours as we get older and turn our attention from what happens right around us to the national stage. Recently on my travels I visited one of Welland's elementary schools to meet a torch bearer who had carried the Olympic torch through Thorold during their relay December 20 and watch the entire school kick off a Friday afternoon of Olympic activities with a Parade of Nations. Each kid represented a country in the gymnasium that was transformed to an Olympic Auditorium. Those kids and their teachers were just happy to be there and honour our athletes. It was an incredibly refreshing reprieve. Here's to teaching generations to come the right way to celebrate the Games. 

Here are some scenes from the day and the story, published in The Tribune:

Torch bearer Paul Barchiesi got to visit the Olympic stadium Friday, without leaving Niagara.
This stadium was at Welland's St. Augustine Catholic School, and the 'athletes' were not famous sport icons but students, who represented each of the countries at the 2010 Winter Games in a Parade of Nations in the school's gymnasium.
Barchiesi, a Port Colborne resident and retired secondary school principal, was a torch bearer in Thorold December 20. He said it was an "honour" to carry the torch in Niagara and spoke of the "Canadian spirit" displayed that day. "Three hundred metres (the distance each torch bearer ran) went by in what seemed like seconds,"
He recalled getting pumped up before his route and "how emotional" he grew as it donned on him how fortunate he and other torch bearers were to have had the opportunity to participate in making history.
Friday's visit to St. Augustine was doubly special for Barchiesi, who was head of the school when current principal Mary Kay Kalagian was a student in 1988. He said it was "wonderful" to be back and that he was pleased to see Kalagian had followed in his footsteps.
For today's students, who could be witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime event in the Winter Games coming to Canada, taking part in a ritual that brings the Olympics closer to them is "very important. I was very fortunate to be able to carry the torch. For me, it's significant. But for the kids, the significance is unbelievable."
During Friday's assembly, he told the young crowd that if the Winter Games "ever come back to Canada, applaud. It's one of those experiences you'll never forget."
Though he was one of 12,000 torch bearers in Canada and met other notable figures who shared the honour, he said the opportunity to speak to St. Augustine students Friday was "more important."
Kalagian praised the "energy" that was displayed by students and staff during the ceremony.
The Parade of Nations was followed by an afternoon of Olympic sports, including bobsledding, curling, hockey, biathlon and other activities.

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