People

People

TANYA DAVIES February 16 1998
People

People

TANYA DAVIES February 16 1998

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

BRUCE WALLACE

Long before a seemingly porcelain Midori Ito rose in colorful relief against the grey winter sky to light the Olympic flame, before a skyscraper-sized sumo wrestler named Akebono mounted the stage and dipped his toes around a ring in the ritual Japanese purification of the athletic ground—even ahead of the Nagano schoolchildren twirling their way endearingly through a pop symphony ode to peace— the opening ceremonies of the Nagano Games offered some subtle inspiration to the athletes of the XVIII Winter Olympics.

Against a backdrop of haunting folk chants and singing, 1,000 colorfully dressed Naganoites opened the festival by slipping across the infield to raise eight stocky wooden pillars in each corner of the Olympic stadium. Lifting the massive 10-m-high Onbashira is an ancient consecration of the earth, and the complex choreography required to slide the poles up guide-wire ropes and into an erect pose takes some pretty impressive teamwork. So as they pulled the logs aloft, the Olympic Stadium video screens flashed messages applauding the display of co-operation. “Pooling your strength,” it said approvingly. “Striving together.”

Many Canadian Olympic athletes get their motivation from mantras, those pithy self-help slogans that slip in and out of vogue (the overworked phrase from the athletes so far this Olympiad seems to be “reach for your dream”). The Japanese raising of the Onbashira suggests another valuable mantra the Canadians might want to keep in mind: teamwork. Pulling together has always been a defining characteristic of Canadian Olympic teams. They mix and fraternize across sports disciplines, hang out together, urge each other on in the pursuit of their dreams. At previous Games, figure skaters always showed up to holler for the speed skaters, and freestyle skiers would cheer for one another—even though each was often the greatest threat to the other’s medal chances.

The Canadians—and their team spirit—will be sorely tested

That reputation for team spirit may be tested in Nagano, where the Winter Games feature the biggest—154 athletes—and best Canadian team ever. One reason is simply unprecedented pressure. For the first time, the Canadians arrived at a Winter Olympics not merely hoping to roll up a hefty medal toll, but counted upon to make sure a bunch of those medals are gold. Even foreigners are aware that Canada is suddenly flexing power. ‘We’ve met the enemy, a new Red Menace, and one disturbingly close to home,” harked the Los Angeles Times's sports pages in a tongue-in-cheek description of the Canadian-American showdowns in hockey, freestyle skiing, men’s figure skating and many more sports. USA Today predicted that Canada would finish fourth among all nations with 14 medals—one more than the United States. With the Russian sports program coming as unhinged as the Mir space station, Americans casting around for a new archrival could simply look to their northern neighbor.

But expectations of Canadian success are highest back home, where there is throat-constricting pressure to ensure that this gold rush does not take a Bre-X-style turn to dust. Gone are the days when Canadian fans settled down in front of their TVs, fingers crossed, hoping that a skier might run the race of a lifetime to steal a medal from the favored Europeans, or marvelling when a previously anonymous athlete stepped to the medal podium in one of those exotic winter sports that no one at home quite knew the rules to. From the men’s and women’s hockey and curling teams to a now-dominant speed-skating squad and the arrival of snowboarding, the Winter Olympics seem designed to play to Canadian strengths. And play it did, when Ross Rebagliati of Whistler, B.C. won the men’s giant slalom snowboarding event on Sunday—the first gold medal for snowboarding in Olympic history. There is a shared confidence that freestyle skier Jean-Luc Brassard (who carried the Maple Leaf into the opening ceremonies at the head of a smartly stylish Canadian team) will be making another dash down the mogul hill to gold. And there is fervent belief that this time around, Elvis Stojko will finally capture the men’s figure-skating gold that has eluded not only him but world champions Brian Orser and Kurt Browning before him.

The athletes cannot help feeling the pressure. At the Canadian Olympic Association-hosted party the night before the opening ceremonies, the theme hammered home throughout the evening’s speeches and videotaped wishes from home was:

“Canadians are all behind you,” followed by a fairly blunt “Bring home the gold.” (Tie message was not the only sour note at the party. The strange send-off was hosted by miscast comedians telling endless political jokes, and the proceedings were notable mostly for their Anglo-centricity—even provoking questions in Ottawa that prompted Heritage Minister Sheila Copps to criticize the event)

“The expectations are high—we won a lot of races this season,” agreed long-track speed-skating

coach Derrick Auch, whose team boasts sprint favorites Jeremy Wotherspoon and Catriona LeMay Doan. “But it’s great to have a team that people back home know about and support Besides,” he adds, “we expect a lot from ourselves, too.”

The curlers were certainly enjoying the experience of getting a crack at winning a gold in their sport’s Olympic medal debut ‘You dream about being at the Olympics and walking in to the opening ceremonies,” said women’s curling lead Marcia Gudereit who carried a heavy cold along with her emotions into Nagano’s Olympic stadium. If pairs skater Kristy Sargeant could argue she got a boost from living in the athletes’ village (“There are Canadian flags everywhere you look and the feeling is: We’re number 1,” she said), Gudereit echoed the other Canadian curlers’ relief at living 50 km away at the curling site in Karuizawa. ‘We have been to three world championships and brought home three golds, so I’d say we’re expected to win for sure,” Gudereit said through snif-

fles. “I’m glad we’re on our own. There are fewer distractions.” “Yeah, too many distractions here, it’s bad,” snapped a testy Shannon Miller, the women’s hockey coach, as she sipped a soft drink at a Nike-sponsored event where her players were swarmed by Japanese children eager for autographs. In a building rented by the sporting goods superpower, Nike-sponsored players are invited to escape Nagano’s Olympic environment and Japanese culture and indulge in such universal cultural passions as hamburgers and foosball. As Miller looked on, team captain Stacy Wilson took the microphone, thanking the company for providing the team with equipment and vowing that the Canadian women were “going to look good wearing it in the gold-medal game.” But the Canadians looked anything but good in tying Sweden 1-1 in their last pre-Olympic test, and the nervous looks on some of the players faces as they chowed down at Nike World showed their brittleness as the real competition was about to begin.

Not every Canadian athlete seemed nervous, however. Mike Harris’s curling team whooped it up as if «

Nagano was just another weekend road trip on the I rural Ontario bonspiel circuit. Substitute Paul Savage g slipped down his pants to show off an Olympic tattoo § on his left cheek, and the others implored reporters £ to join them down in Karuizawa for a drink. ‘We’ve § brought our mickeys of booze with us,” said a smil2 ing George Karrys, the lead in the foursome. “Hey,” " he added with a feigned apology as if someone might question whether drinking at the Games showed ill-discipline in an Olympic athlete. “You can’t expect us to change everything about curling’s image all at once.”

By contrast, hockey showed last week that its thuggish component remains integral to its culture. In one of the last games before the NHL shut down its season for the Olympics, Chicago defenceman Gary Suter, an American, cross-checked Anaheim forward Paul Kariya in the head. The ugly crack left the skilled Canadian forward with a concussion and an “uncertain” status for the Olympic tournament he had been expected to star in. Canadians already have unforgiving memories of the Suter blow that injured Wayne Gretzky’s back in the 1991 Canada Cup, and the replay on Kariya underscored the blood lust developing between players from the two countries. Canadian captain Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers has also been complaining that American players on other teams were taking extra shots at him in the weeks leading up to the Games.

If so, the competitive dislike for the Americans may be the emotional bond the Canadian NHLers need in order to find their team spirit in the short time available before their first game on Feb. 13. Many of the players carry personal grudges from NHL rivalries onto the Canadian squad, notably the titanic on-ice feuds between Lindros and defenceman Scott Stevens of New Jersey, and another between Adam Foote of Colorado and Brendan Shanahan of Detroit. But as they waited for the wealthy pros to arrive in Nagano, other Canadian Olympians were still wondering how the professional

hockey players would blend with the rest of them. Some Olympic officials continued to demand assurances from hockey executives that the NHLers would stick to the modest accommodations in the athletes’ village and not flee to the nearest hotel at the earliest moment. Hockey officials replied emphatically that their players were there for the Olympic experience, too. But suspicions remained that the much-fussed-about NHLers would remain a breed apart.

“We all like to support each other, but some of us think it’s going to be difficult to get the hockey players to respond well,” said bobsledder Chris Lori. “I do a lot of social events with hockey players and they tend to hang out with each other rather than mingle with other people. So it will be very difficult to get them to bond.” And there was a touch of resentment, too, that the hockey tournament might swing the spotlight away from other sports that only get their turn every four years. ‘We’re hoping that the media will share their attention equitably,” says Lori, “as opposed to writing only about what Wayne Gretzky has for lunch or how big his room is.”

As guests at the controversial Olympic-eve gathering fled into the Nagano night, Lori lamented that this year’s Canadian Olympic team lacks the cohesiveness and spirit he remembers on his three

previous squads. But it simply may take longer to fuse this larger, more diverse group of athletes. Much of Canada’s rise to Red Menace status comes from the addition of so many new sports to the Winter Olympic movement in the past decade. Back in 1987, Montreal lawyer and IOC vice-president Richard Pound successfully pushed to extend the Games from 12 to 16 days in order to boost the number of hours of weekend televised Olympic programming. That meant adding more events—preferably modern, televisionfriendly ones like short-track speed skating and freestyle skiing. This year, women’s hockey, snowboarding and curling have been added to fill out the schedule, all to Canada’s benefit. Pound just laughs when asked if he foresaw the happy results of his initiative. “I’d love to believe I was that Machiavellian,” he said last week.

Lori’s worries notwithstanding, the 1998 Canadian team may just gel with success as the Olympics unfold. “Oh, we’ll have medals day in, day out while we’re here,” says the rugged bobsledder, whose fiercely competitive teammate Pierre Lueders is the favorite in both the two and four-man bobsleigh events. Nagano’s spirit may do the rest. If the city lacks the snow-globe charm of Lillehammer, its people offer a similar smiling welcome. “Five years ago, if I saw you come in to my office I would have run and hid,” says Tsugio Nakazawa, 47, manager of the bobsleigh and luge run. “People in Nagano wouldn’t even look at foreigners. Now look at us.” There was much to look at— and admire—in the simple, stylish and noble way Nagano set the opening tone for the Games. Much to inspire an athlete: “All pulling together,” as the stadium screen advised. A little teamwork. □