Winning form: The game plan

If it’s true that nice guys finish last, Canada, in the run-up to Vancouver, is looking golden

Winning formCan the opening ceremonies beat Beijing’s?
Céline Dion, Bryan Adams, or (God forbid) both? The Internet is abuzz with rumours about what may be in store for the 60,000 lucky souls who will attend the Vancouver 2010 opening ceremonies at B.C. Place, and billions more around the world who will tune in on TV. But verifiable details about the Feb. 12 spectacular are few and far between, despite the participation of close to 4,000 volunteers and months of rehearsals.

David Atkins, the executive producer of the show, will only allow that Canada’s two official languages and many First Nations will be reflected in the content. And that it won’t be as clichéd as the ice floes, Ski-Doos and hockey players that were Canada’s contribution to the closing ceremonies in Turin in 2006. “What we’ve aimed to do here is try and create something which is more reflective of Canada and hopefully a little more perhaps emotionally engaging,” he told the media last month.

Organizers have been actively dampening expectations since Beijing’s never-to-be-duplicated 20,000-person extravaganza in 2008. But surprises are surely in store. Atkins used horses to make the Olympic rings in the show he produced for his native Australia at the 2000 Games. At the Asian Games in Doha in 2006, he used elephants. B.C. Place underwent $8.3 million in renovations for the Games, including, it has been reported, the installation of a cauldron in the floor. The budget for the opening and closing ceremonies in Vancouver is $40 million. That could buy a lot of dancing bears.
—Jonathon Gatehouse

No more playing Mr. Nice guy
If it’s true that nice guys finish last, Canada, in the run-up to Vancouver, is looking golden. In fall, when speed skaters from several countries were denied access to the Richmond Oval, comedian Stephen Colbert called on “Saskatchewhiners” to “unclench their frosty sphincters and let Americans onto their oval.” Colbert isn’t the only one claiming we’re being total iceholes. We’ve been taken to task the world over for abusing our status as Olympic host by “playing nasty,” and “zealously” restricting access to Games venues by foreign athletes.

Shelley Rudman, who won Britain’s lone medal in Turin (a silver) in the skeleton, told the BBC that while Canadian athletes have logged a “phenomenal” number of runs on the sliding track at Whistler (widely considered the world’s most treacherous and technical course), she’s barely had a crack at it.

Brit curlers have made similar noises. And at the unfamiliar Whistler downhill track, which was built at a cost of more than $100,000, several foreign medal contenders were recently left huddling along the safety fencing, watching a rote training session by the Canucks—who have used it for two seasons. Indeed, Ron Rossi, the executive director of U.S.A Luge, told the New York Times that Canada’s “lack of sportsmanship” has even undone a decades-old, open-access agreement between the Canadian and U.S. luge teams; most Canadian sliders, the U.S. noted, took 60 to 100 practice runs ahead of Salt Lake.

But will Canada’s podium-at-any-cost approach make it rain gold? It just might. The hundreds of runs Canuck sliders have logged at Whistler will attune them to every inch of the difficult track. Same goes for skiers, who’ve deployed GPS to track the optimal route to the bottom at the Whistler downhill. Speed skaters have had 16 months to acclimatize to the new oval in Richmond, where they live and train: they’ve learned, for example, that the Olympic surface is neither as hard nor as fast as in Calgary, favouring strong, technical skaters—but shh: don’t tell the foreigners!

Canada has never won a gold at home, never heard O Canada sung at a medals ceremony, and taxpayers have dumped more than $100 million to see the Maple Leaf tower above the flags of other countries in Vancouver. The race for the Lady Byng this is not. The Canadian team has set a target of 35 medals for Vancouver, 11 more than in Turin, its best finish ever. If what the Wall Street Journal calls our “aggressive, new attitude” seems un-Canadian, perhaps it’s just not one we’ve so brashly displayed before.
—Nancy Macdonald

Retailers are all geared up
Despite the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Co. paid $100 million to be the official merchandiser of the Vancouver Games (and the next three Olympics), many other Canadian businesses are capitalizing on the event by issuing their own products. So far the retailers have gotten away with it by avoiding the O-word. Lululemon is selling “Cheer Gear!”—its line includes hockey-helmet-like toques and “Cheer Me On” mitts and scarves—under the coy banner: “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011.” And Roots, previously an official Olympic outfitter, has its “International Collection” of hoodies, T-shirts, scarves, toques and leather items, featuring the flags of many countries vying for gold this month.

Angered by the brazen merchandising campaigns, Olympic organizers have reportedly sent letters to retailers, calling for “better sportsmanship.” But even with all the added competition, the official Olympic merchandise has hardly been overlooked: as of mid-January, 1.5 million pairs of red mittens had been sold; organizers boasted that they were more than halfway toward their $500-million goal in revenue.
—Cathy Gulli

Even Volunteers are hitting the gym
The process of picking volunteers for the Games has been quintessentially Canadian in the level of diplomatic decorum used: the 25,000 volunteers selected for the Olympics and Paralympics represent more then 60 ethnicities and languages. There are roughly equal numbers of senior citizens and young and middle-aged people. And volunteers come from every part of Canada, as well as many of the countries competing for medals. Thirty-one per cent of volunteers speak French, demonstrating a “commitment to both official languages,” says Erin Sills, spokesperson for the Games.

Volunteers share an earnest reverence for the Olympics. Diane from Toronto—she won’t share her last name or age for fear of jeopardizing her position on the alpine ski crew—has spent months preparing. “I’ve been training hard, and going to the gym several times a week,” she says. “You have to be pretty athletic to withstand these conditions.” She’s right: volunteers must commit to 13 shifts, which last up to 10 hours each. They also have homework: Diane has to read a 60-page manual that details “the venues, safety, jobs, what to do and what not to do,” she says. But she doesn’t mind.

“Even though I’ll never be an Olympic athlete,” she says, “I get to experience the Olympics in a different way.”
—Cathy Gulli

Good business for First Nations
The Olympics are an appetizing target for groups seeking international attention, and few causes in Canada draw the global gaze like unresolved Aboriginal land claims. Why, then, aren’t native groups making the most of their opportunity? Because organizers in Vancouver and Whistler wisely brought them into the fold, declaring the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people to be the “Four Host First Nations” of the 17-day celebration, and sharing in the promotional and financial spoils. About $54 million in construction contracts has gone to Aboriginal-owned businesses, while visitors will find a $3.5-million First Nations pavilion at the centre of Vancouver, spotlighting Aboriginal artworks, businesses and culture. Native leaders and artists have played a part in everything from the design of the medals to the torch relay.

The deal has its critics—even within the four participating nations. One organization calling itself the Olympic Resistance Network has criticized the Games as a waste of money better spent on housing and health care for Aboriginals, attracting limited attention in the international media. But on the whole, natives in British Columbia seem upbeat about the Games, hoping their prominent role in the event will help break the stereotype that one leader describes as “the dime-store Indian, just beads and feathers.”
—Charlie Gillis