NAGANO '98

Magic Moments

Canada's best-ever Winter Games packed the power to surprise and inspire

BOB LEVIN March 2 1998
NAGANO '98

Magic Moments

Canada's best-ever Winter Games packed the power to surprise and inspire

BOB LEVIN March 2 1998

Magic Moments

Canada's best-ever Winter Games packed the power to surprise and inspire

BOB LEVIN

NAGANO '98

These were Hermann Maier’s Games. They were Maier’s Games because, long after the last earnest anthem was played, the last flag raised and the last tear of triumph or despair trailed down the last ruddy cheek, the enduring image of Nagano will be the Austrian skier soaring absurdly off the downhill slope, turning gawky cartwheels through two fences and crash-landing in a snowdrift. And getting up and walking away. And then, a few achy days later, this bricklayer whom admirers call the Herminator and whose own girlfriend wonders if “he really is an alien,” not only raced again but blasted down the super-G and giant-slalom runs to double gold.

They were Catriona LeMay Doan’s Olympics, too. The Saskatoon native with the powerful strides and high-beam smile grabbed gold and bronze to headline a Canadian speed-skating medal haul. They were Annie Perreault’s and Eric Bédard’s Games on the rowdy short track, and Pierre Lueders and Dave MacEachern’s on the blistering bobsled run, and Sandra Schmirler and company’s in curling’s Olympic comingout party. And of course they were Ross Rebagliati’s Games and party all rolled into one, taking him for a giddy ride on the 15-minutes-of-fame express from the snowboard hill to the police station to the Leno show.

These were also the Games when Canadians acknowledged, if they hadn’t already, that many other countries now play hockey, too, and rather well. If only we could send our very best, the cry went over the long dry decades since Canada last claimed Olympic hockey gold in 1952. And this year Canada’s best—Gretzky, Lindros, Roy et al—took Nagano like rock stars, racked up points in the nice-guy sweepstakes (as opposed to, say, those room-trashing Americans) but still couldn’t find the gold. Neither could the Canadian women, lugging the burden of history into hockey’s first Olympics as a two-gender sport, dropping it to the looser, slightly underdog Americans.

Which is why athletes play the Games, as opposed to experts handicapping them—because sport is about surprises. Except in ice dancing, of course, where a bloc of judges—paragons of economy, if nothing else—made up their minds before the skaters actually skated. These could have been Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz’s Games, too, and unless ice dancing cleans up its act it should become an or-Olympic sport.

All in all, though, the 153 Canadian athletes who went to Nagano fared admirably in the great-expectations test. Canadians picked up more winter medals than ever before, a cache of 15 that topped the 13 tallied in Lillehammer four years ago and led American newspaper writers to detect a new Red Menace on their northern border. Canadians were cool, decked out in their spiffy red jackets and caps as they mounted podiums again and again—in ice sports, mostly, not snow.

And the big winners were not necessarily the big names. Perreault triumphed only after favored teammate Isabelle Charest slid down and took a Chinese rival with her. Bédard captured bronze when much-decorated Marc Gagnon crashed and learned. (Later they teamed up with two mates to grab relay gold.) Mark Fawcett was Canada’s chairman of the board, not Rebagliati, but not on race day. That’s sports, anytime, only blown up to Olympian proportions. Why did brave Elvis Stojko have to arrive at his Nagano moment with a bum leg and miserable flu? Bad timing; bad luck. The disappointed simply have to live with it.

For viewers back home—waking at ungodly hours to catch the action live or watching the packaged version in prime time—the appeal was often in the competitors from other lands. There was Japanese ski jumper Masahiko Harada, who won redemption before the home crowd after his crushing failure in Lillehammer, and Norwegian cross-country racer Bjorn Daehlie, who took four medals to run his record Olympic total to 12 but still hung around to congratulate a last-place finisher. And yet there was pride in the ubiquitous Canadian flags, as well—even if they did “shock” Suzanne Tremblay, a Bloc Québécois MP who visited the Games and decreed the Canadian support bordered on the fanatical.

Well, so be it then: Canadians are fanatical. And why not? For while the Nagano Olympics can hardly be called Canada’s Games—Germany, Norway, Russia and Austria scooped more medals, after all—they were as rivetting as a skier hurtling into oblivion, as inspiring as him getting up for gold. □