The Olympics are many things. Some of them are obvious: a celebration of sport, physical achievement, and excellence; a way to bring nations together in competitive cooperation (or cooperative competition) rather than in war. Others take a few moments’ reflection to notice: they are a way for local, and sometimes national, coalitions of business interests to make lots of money, usually at others’ expense. That’s why the Olympic bidding process is typically accompanied by protest and divisiveness: while the Olympics bring revenue to to some, they require huge investments in infrastructure, which takes away funding from other things, such as public services. And they often require moving things around — people, homes, people without homes — either forcibly or through economic pressure, to create the venues to host them. Vancouver’s Winter Olympics were all these things, though NBC’s coverage showed little of the controversy the alternative media buzzed with.
But perhaps most of all, the Olympics are a way for nation-states, and especially for the host countries, to buttress themselves both in their own internal solidarity (which has been flagging in Canada in recent years) — by ratcheting up the patriotism — and in the profiles they present to the rest of the world, as a kind of technicolor visiting card for tourists and potential business partners from around the world. Canada did well with the first: winning 14 gold medals, a new world record for the Winter Olympics, capped by their overtime hockey win over the U.S., was everything Canadian sports fans could have hoped for. But with the second, they could have done much better.
Judging by the opening ceremonies, Canada presented itself as a multicultural and pluralistic, aesthetically modern and vibrant nation. (That the First Nations, so flashily on display at the ceremonies, were themselves divided over the whole Olympic process was an interesting result of Canadians’ penchant for crafty compromises.) Judging by the closing ceremonies, on the other hand — at least those that I saw (both on NBC and on CTV, which continued showing them for a while last night after NBC ended its evening’s coverage) — Canada presented itself as a place of formulaic second-rate pop music, of bad, self-deprecating jokes, and (gulp) of mounted police, moose, beavers, toque-wearing lumberjacks, maple leaves, and loons.
The idea, I guess, was to showcase just how seriously Canadians take to heart the silly jokes and pokes that others (mostly Americans) unthinkingly discharge in their direction, and how eager they are to recycle them in all earnestness, presumably because there’s little else there. The caricature, blown up in huge plastic puppets and balloons, hides the barren tundra beyond it.
What of B. W. Powe’s Canada of light, the nation built of communication technologies, crafty social experiments and patiently deliberative compromises, the nation of poets and philosopher-kings (and queens) bridging the wild expanses to the north with the huddled and welcoming company of their livable cities in the south? The Canada of mutual aid and cultural difference, of Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Margaret Atwood, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Charles Taylor, Myrna Kostash, Michael Ondaatje, John Ralston Saul, Dionne Brand, et al?
I guess ideas aren’t exactly meant for television consumption… Or at least, in an age of Stephen Harper, not these ideas. (And, to be fair, it was nice to see Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and K.D. Lang singing Leonard Cohen, representing a bit of these ideas in their musical embodiments.) But for a nation-building milestone such as this event was supposed to be, the ending was a little disappointing. Come back, y’all, if you didn’t see any moose this time. And sorry that you didn’t. So sorry. Yech.
(And, by the way, sorry we beat you in hockey.