Spirit of Olympic fever lingers in Canada
By Arielle Muriel
St. Patrick’s day has come and gone. Easter weekend saw families and friends get together. The Flames aren’t going to win the cup. The world has gone back to normal after the whirl of The Olympics. If someone honks in the road these days it’s probably because somebody wasn’t paying attention, not because Canada scored another medal. It seems it is all over, and it’s back to business as usual, but under the surface more is at work.
The world did change, if only just a little. For some, it changed a lot. Vancouver has been put on the world map, just as Calgary was 22 years ago. But it is more than that. Minutes after the opening ceremonies were over bootlegged copies spread through the Internet like wildfire, despite the blatant warning at the end of the broadcast about unofficial copies being strictly banned. The “water cooler effect” is now more powerful than ever. Once, Internet was touted as the downfall of television, of reporting, of news. Yet, unprecedented things are happening in the realms of information dissemination.
According to the Nielsen Company, which records television ratings and Internet traffic, during the month of February one in seven viewers that watched the Superbowl and the opening ceremonies of the Olympics were surfing the web at the same time. What does all this mean? The more people watching, the more people effected. After Michael Phelps won 8 medals in swimming at the 2008 Olympics, swimming pools around the world were inundated with new members. But it’s not just about more athletes, or even more funding for athletes, even though this effect has changed millions of lives around the world. Viewer-ship is merely a symptom of something even bigger, even more personal. 22.1 million people attended the Vancouver Olympics. Considering that the Greater Vancouver area only boasts about 2 million residents, the Olympics momentarily swelled the ranks of Vancouver 11 times normal. There is no telling the effect this has had on the world. Many pessimists state that the Olympics is no longer the shining light of peace it was originally intended to be. It is said that the IOC is corrupt. Protests are now a normal part of proceedings.
Throughout all of this, there remains a point, though small it may seem to some. It is a personal point, much less quantifiable than TV ratings or webpage hits. For me, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics started off as a side note. I was rather typical of my demographic before the Olympics started; 20 something’s that are only vaguely interested in the Olympics, will watch if it’s on but spend more time on their own things.
I happened to be at a friends house for dinner the night of the Opening Ceremonies. They caught me. I’ve watched many Opening Ceremonies before, but this time seemed to matter more than the rest. I’m an American citizen, but I’ve lived in Canada for the last 12 years. I’ve made Canada my home and friends and family back in the States often ask I what draws me to this country, even after paying thousands in international student fees and work/study visas. As I watched I realized that the Opening Ceremonies might help to explain what I love about this great country, making it something more than a place where oil, beef and comedians come from.
A few days later a friend called me up and said if I could find a place for us to stay in Vancouver, he’d take me to the Olympics. The world has changed, communication is instant and far reaching and this has made the world smaller than ever before. Made possible by the Internet, communities have sprung up around the world that spans borders, languages, even wars.
So I went online to couchsurfing.com and within 2 hours I had a place for my friend and I to stay. On Monday we drove out to see the city that everyone was talking about. As we got closer signs of the Olympics became more frequent: Little souvenirs in the gas stations, windows painted with the Olympic rings. We arrived at our host, Alan’s house very late, and despite him having to work early the next morning he opened his doors to us and gave us a warm place to sleep. The next morning, after watching the sunrise over the Olympic City from Alan’s patio, we set out to experience The Games for ourselves.
Our first day consisted of a walk to downtown. As we moved through the city things popped out at us. Everyone was smiling and friendly. This was juxtaposed with activist fliers making comments on Vancouver’s clean up of the city’s homeless before the start of the Olympics. As we made our way to Granville Island we took in the open art exhibits dappling the streets. Doors were ajar, beckoning us to enter and view each particular form of expression. It was obvious that much municipal funding had gone into these demonstrations. A comment was made by a fellow passer-by that Vancouver wasn’t normally like this; that they wanted tourists to believe that artist’s decked the streets all year round when in fact much of it was a show for the crowds. I wondered if he was a local as he walked away, and it got me to thinking. I live in Calgary, home of the 1988 Winter Olympics. Even now, people are proud of this fact, and bumper stickers are still seen from that era. I have been to more free concerts and events than I can count at the downtown Canada Olympic Plaza, built originally for medal presentations. Only time will tell whether a similar bolstering of public events will be continued in Vancouver’s Olympic structures in the days to come.
Throughout the day we were inundated with Canadian spirit. We briefly considered riding the zip line they had set up in the heart of downtown, but realized that we would be spending an entire precious day waiting in line, since the ride opened at 9 am, but people started lining up at 6 am. We learned our way around downtown in a way only pedestrians in a city temporarily blockaded off for us could. Teems of people streamed through the streets, and on our first day we were part of a sudden impromptu celebration as the first woman to win gold for Canada on her home soil received her medal. At the corner of Granville and Robson there was a constant maelstrom of fans, cheering and waving flags. We watched for a while, partaking in the festivities and cheering with the crowd. The masses seemed to be constantly replaced by a steady stream of fresh followers. We wondered when the swirling horde broke up, if ever. After a wonderful evening of all you can eat sushi we met up with our host and eventually made our way back home but the crowd was still spinning when we left.
The next day my friend had a job interview, and since the original purpose of the trip was because he was considering moving to Vancouver, I set out on my own. Rousted early again from our kind host’s home, we found a gregarious little coffee shop with free wireless where I happily set to a morning latte and sent my friends and family an email with some of the pictures I had taken. I had been fully caught up by Olympic spirit by this time, throwing myself wholeheartedly into the role of Olympic Emissary, responsible for bringing the games to those not as fortunate as we who could partake of them in person.
Once my convivial correspondence was through I was off, determined to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery, since they were simultaneously letting people in for free AND showing an exhibit of Da Vinci’s anatomy drawings! I made my way through the increasing throngs and gathered with the rest of the queue. I entertained myself with capturing pictures of the cherry blossoms (in February!) and flags waving in the wind. The wait was just long enough to encourage chatter with fellow art enthusiasts. Once inside I got lost in the exhibits, spending hours pouring over Da Vinci’s beautiful writing, Emily Carr’s endemic paintings, and other new and old artists alike. I barely made it through the second of four floors before the Gallery closed, and patient but thorough attendants ushered me out. I vowed to return the next day with my friend.
The next morning I woke up to chilly damp air. Our host had been kind enough to humour me and let me sleep in my sleeping bag on his beautiful porch. The sun christened the snowcap of Grouse Mountain and then rose over the bay, making the world stop for just a moment. I hoped everyone visiting Vancouver for the Olympics got to see that at least once. Since our host had already been kind enough to let us stay an extra night, and his next couch surfer had arrived the night before, we packed our stuff, thanked Alan and headed out. A stop over at our new favourite coffee shop, Blondie’s, saw our phones charged, another email sent to friends and family, and caffeine running through our veins in preparation for the day ahead.
Since our next host lived right downtown we drove the car across the bridge and searched for a parking spot near Davie Street. After searching and searching we found an alley parking lot and stopped into the bookstore that owned it. Goodness knows how many tourists had been asking to park since the Olympics started, but the owner gave us permission to park for free for the entire day, night, and next morning. Day after day of genuine hospitality overwhelmed us in a single moment, as we walked back to the centre of the hubbub. A guy was standing in the middle of the overrun streets with a “Free Hugs” sign. After hugs and friendly words I asked him how long he’d been there. He said 4 hours that day, 8 the day before, 6 the day before that, and he would continue as much as he could until the Games ended. I was momentarily lost for words. What can one say but “Thank you” and try to pass it on? Truly the world was witnessing what I love most about Canada, in such abundance that even those who were the most blind would have to have seen some glimmer.
Off to the Gallery we went, and my friend and I parted momentarily while he waited in line. On my way back I noticed an older gentleman sitting and carving on the street. He wasn’t busking, or selling anything, just sitting there carving, the pile of shavings at his feet a testament to how long he’d been at it. I sat down next to him to learn his story. Turns out he was from interior BC, was in town for the Olympics, had his entire family here. He’d gotten tired and always carried his carving stuff with him so here he was. We talked about the Olympics, about his family, about my dreams to own land with my boyfriend in northern BC and raise our own family. After a bit I said I had to get back to my friend, and he handed me the little wooden hatchet he’d been carving. I thanked him, yet another bit of wonder to tell my family about. Our closing remarks shocked me, though. I asked him if he’d had a chance to see the Da Vinci exhibit. He had, and his next comment floored me. He leaned in and said “if you ask me that Leonardo fellow was a bit off…you know…. gay, drawing all those men’s parts. Not for me.” How much fuzzier could the line between right and wrong get? But it made me think, here I was, a different generation, a different way of thinking. In any other situation we probably would never have talked, yet because of the Olympics two different worlds not only met, but connected.
After the Gallery we were off to see the torch for ourselves. We walked down to the waterfront and decided to have a picnic lunch on a bench in the sun. We sat and ate and people watched, trying to guess where they were from by the snippets of conversation we heard. As we watched Hannah Kearney, the gold winner for women’s moguls, walked up. She seemed to be doing an interview but afterwards a crowd grew. It was a moment of humanity, where a star seemed to be walking among us, and we all realized that she was just as human as the rest of us. I encouraged two children watching with awe to go up and see the medal. With great humility she leaned down and they looked on with wonder as she told them they could touch it.
The rest of the day passed before we knew it. We tried to visit as many of the “Houses” as we could, varied exhibits throughout downtown representing different sections of Canadian and world culture. We saw the German house and savoured a warm bratwurst with sauerkraut. We witnessed a lively performance of authentic drumming and viewed bone carvings, magnificent arctic animals, and computer terminals encouraging us to apply for jobs at the Northern house. The sun was setting and as we walked out into the chilling air a glowing structure caught our eye from across the street. A massive glassed dome had been strung with lights. The potential of interesting acoustics drew us and we climbed over some benches arranged in a circle to gain the best location with which to launch our voices into this impressive structure. An uncertain “Hello?” was sent out to bounce against the shaped walls above us. As we listened to the waves of sound ricochet around us we were startled by a matter of fact “Hello!” from a different direction. We turned and a couple sitting on a farther bench were grinning. Laughter filled the structure, and we said good evening to our compatriots in sound and continued on our journey. Art galleries, hanging gardens, and beautiful old churches later we found ourselves on our way back to the area of town that Joshua, our last minute Couch Surfing saviour, lived. A brief phone call and some triangulation with an iPhone saw us carrying our stuff down a street a neat little apartment building where a jovial Aussie, Joshua, welcomed us into his home. We thanked him for allowing us to stay the night, since the mere fact that we had been able to find a place last minute in the Olympic City was astounding enough. We settled in and sat down to exchange stories, as Couch Surfers are wont to do. We broached the topics of our jobs and our work/play balance, of food choices and sustainability, of battles chosen and battles fought. I had finally found a vegan I could understand. Joshua allowed us to be ourselves while remaining open to the questions, and they were many, we had for his choice to eschew animal products. Our conversation ebbed on into the night until we realized we were famished and if we didn’t hurry all of the restaurants would close their kitchens before we got there. Heads full of satiating conversation, but with empty bellies we trundled back onto the streets of Vancouver. As a final farewell to the city we visited the sushi place of our first night and stuffed ourselves to the brim. Letting ourselves back into Josh’s place with the key he had lent us for the purpose we said goodnight to our fine host and curled up for one last night’s sleep.
Waking up early, and refreshed by a new but equally beautiful vantage from the West End, we packed up our stuff to leave Vancouver. Thanking our kind host we departed, sad to see the life of the city fall behind us, but glad we didn’t have to be there for the inevitable end to festivities. We were both changed, the whole city was changed. Maybe even Canada and the world had grown a bit. Never had I experienced and Olympics from ground zero before. I know every person I met was changed, if only because the openness and camaraderie shared with every momentary inhabitant, however fleeting. Events of this extent give us a frame of reference for true world peace. I’m convinced that however frustrating the inherent bureaucracy of such events, the outcome is worth the price of organization if it serves to teach us all what is possible when we all get together to celebrate the achievements of species as one.