Nine Things I Learned Two Weekends Ago In Vancouver

Granville and Robson intersection, Sunday afternoon. Photo via lorneinvan on Flickr

Continued on from Jeff's far more ordered bullet points.

I am not much of a patriotic person. There are things I like about my country and things I dislike. I find it silly to be patriotic about a place just because you were born there. What matters are the choices you make, not the things forced on you from your parents. I have also long held a soft spot for Canada. I've visited often and enjoyed most everywhere that I have been, met mostly fantastic people and honestly have always felt a little guilty being a citizen of the global powerhouse overshadowing them. Coincidentally, it must be what like rooting for the Yankees is like, only if you were more self-aware of your inherent advantages.

As such, nationalistic competitions always left me in a weird place emotionally. I am an American; not just by birth but more importantly by choice, but rooting for Americans in the Olympics usually left me nonplussed. Part of it is the stereotypically myopic broadcasting job that NBC does. Not just with it's tape delays but with it's "USA-Plus" coverage. But a bigger part of it might be because I tend to root for underdogs more.

Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong is the only person to ever represent Ghana at the Winter Games. He wears a leopard-print ski suit whose dots are made up of people's names. Those names are sponsors, the only ones that Kwame has. Potential American Olympians have the support of the immense United States Olympic Development Program behind them while this guy, who only started skiing outdoors four years ago, has a handful of random people. How do you root against that? 

How do you root against the Georgians after the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili? Rohullah Nikpai had to flee his native Afghanistan for Iran to escape war, only managing to return in 2004. In Beijing, he won the bronze in Tae Kwon Do. It was the first Olympic medal ever for Afghanistan. There is nothing in my life that could possibly allow me to understand what that must have meant to him and his countrymen. If he had been competing against an American in that bronze medal match, would I have been rooting for the American? I don't see any way that I could have.

On the other hand, with that American advantage in training, equipment and means comes high expectations and a difficult path to be able to distinguish oneself. I imagine those that do make the cut are just as proud to be representing America as Kwame was representing Ghana. All of this left me pensive about rooting interests, often switching on an event by event, athlete by athlete basis. That sort of ambivalence made me uncomfortable. Faced with an internal dilemma about not wanting to root blindly for one "team", I broke it down to individual events which I think was the opposite reaction than most others.

Individual sports make up the bulk of Olympic events and they tend to get little attention in the US when competed outside the Olympic stage. I think that is telling in explaining parts of our sporting culture. It’s the same events and the same athletes each year at the various World Championships and few people care, but once a nation is attached to the event it becomes a team sport and a lot more people tune in.

Though I have my theories, I am not sure why our demand curve for athletics is so much higher than it is for, say, musical theater; nor am I exactly sure why the formation of teams adds to the appeal of the sport. What I do know is that there was no way I was passing up the opportunity to visit an Olympic host city when it was merely two car hours away. Being at a nationalistic disadvantage for the ticket lottery, I didn’t have tickets to any events and even if I had lucked into some, I am not sure I would have kept them given the ridiculously high re-sale prices available. I was excited enough just to visit the epicenter of a global celebration. I had expectations of a giant melting pot of cultures and peoples. For once, travel would essentially come to me.

I am no stranger to Vancouver and based on my previous trips across the border, and the general clustermuckery that Washington State seems to revel in when it comes to planning, I anticipated a full hour for getting across the border via car. It took two minutes. There was no line. I heard the same story from almost everyone else who drove across. Kudos to the people in charge there, you turned a potential hilassacre into one of the best interactions with regulatory officials I can recall.

A coupon provided by the YVR Parking Commission, plenty of available space and an easy transit link from the airport to downtown Vancouver made parking a breeze for another gold star in the book. After getting into the city, I wandered down to GM Place in advance of the US-Finland hockey semi-final to see what the environment was like. I was underwhelmed. It felt like any other sporting event anywhere. Granted there was only about 20,000 seats at the arena, but I was hoping for more peripheral activity. Trying to find a bar open at noon was also more of a chore than it seemed like it should have been and upon finding one I was surrounded not by an international melting pot but by a bunch of over-30 Canadians. Six goals in 11 minutes for the US put me in a great mood, but this was not yet what I had envisioned for a global Olympic atmosphere.

I hoped the Canadian semi-final would be more to my expectations at least in terms of crowds and though it was better, the atmosphere in the Live Downtown viewing area was still not too impressive. The drenching rain might have had something to do with it, and it did get a touch livelier during the narrow escape in the late third period, but I had seen a rowdier public crowd during a Denmark-Portugal World Cup qualifying match that I watched in Copenhagen last fall.

Now seems the best place to describe my thoughts heading into that day of games. Based on the teams in the semi-finals, I knew that I wanted the US to face Canada in the final, but after that I was in that same quandary described in the opening paragraphs. See, I root for a Canadian NHL team. Even before I had much of a rooting interest in the NHL, I always rooted for the Canadian teams in the playoffs. I am an adamant supporter of moving southern American teams back to Canada. All of those feelings had me rooting for Canada, but would that continue when they faced the US? I didn't think so, but I wasn't sure and only the actual match would reveal the answer to me.

I knew I wanted the showdown though because I figured it would make for the best setting, so I was rooting for Canada in their semi-final, going so far as to wear my disgraced Dany Heatley Ottawa jersey as a sign of support after the conclusion of the American game. And sometime between the end of the Canadian game and a couple hours later when I re-emerged from my hostel after drying off, Vancouver went into celebration mode. I have seen the aforementioned World Cup qualifier. I have been in Shanghai during Chinese New Year. I have seen some massive public parties. This was something else.

Tens of thousands of people were out in the streets celebrating. Generally when you get that many people out in close quarters it gets dangerous. Even in celebrations there's always a few bad apples and when people get jammed together, tempers are quick to rise and copious amounts of alcohol are not a good antidote.

This wasn’t disorderly however, in fact few people even seemed drunk, much less out of control. This was just a boisterous group of people all in one place at the same time. Oddly, people seemed constantly on the move, but were going nowhere in particular. Everywhere you went were high fives, hugs, chants, screams and cheers. For hours and hours this continued with little hint of stopping. This was not Seattle circa 2005 NFC Championship Game victory. This was I imagined New York circa VE day might be like. And this was just the semifinals! I was astonished, amazed and anxious for what might happen on Sunday either way.

Saturday turned things back to normal, early Friday-like levels and I expected the city to remain pensive that night in preparation for an early Sunday game made earlier by the obvious need to line up for viewing spots at an obscene hour. I was wrong. Boy was I ever wrong. Video from Saturday night, posted to LeeLeFever's Flickr account.

Yes, Canada won a couple more gold medals on Saturday including in men’s curling, but I doubt curling is that popular, even in Canada. Saturday night mirrored Friday night. If I had to guess, the crowds were maybe 10% less enthused, but given the circumstances, it was beyond my expectations that so many people would be out. I now had no idea what the next day could hold in store.

It was quickly apparent on Sunday that public viewing was going to be the way to go. People were lined up outside of bars starting around 6am. They were lining up for limited space too as apparently most bars and restaurants were allowing reservations for up to around half of their tables, which struck me as incredibly odd, more rewarding of the lazy rather than the dedicated willing to queue up for hours.

Walking to the viewing area, we passed a scattering of decked out American fans. They were audible before they were in sight not because of the racket they were making but because the boos following them could be heard a block away. That was it though, no jeers, no insults. Just boos; just an acknowledgment that they were rooting for the opposition and doing it in the home city.

There’s little to say about the actual game that I can lend insight to. The first two Canadian goals came on defensive lapses in front of Ryan Miller and at that point, I figured Canada was going to be able to coast to the win. America had never trailed in the entire tournament up to this game and now was down 2-0 against Canada for the gold in front of the most partisan crowd you will find in sports outside of national soccer matches.

To the American team’s immense credit, they did not fold and actually came back. While America played extremely well all tournament long and are by no means a complete pushover as a hockey power, I think some people were spoiled by the earlier run of success and general expectation of dominance that Americans are used to. The Canadian team is much much better than America’s. If you were forming a joint team between the two nations, there might have been three Americans chosen. To come back in the situation they found themselves in showed a lot of heart and it made for one hell of a game.

With time running down and the US down 2-1, the cheers were getting louder as each second ticked off the clock. Miller was pulled and the crowd amped up another notch. They were mere seconds away from perhaps the biggest victory in Canadian sports history.

Then Parise scored. Normally, given the eventual result of the game, I would lament the lost significance of that moment. Not this time. This was transcendent, even for a somewhat ambivalent spectator. There wasn’t a collective groan out of the crowd. There was nothing. It went silent instantly, aside from the scattered cheers from American fans. Even those were small; I think more a function of surprise than of lack of support.

It was also right then that I realized how much I wanted America to win. I had succeeded in keeping my emotions in check for the entire game. I never expected America to win so it was easy to stay disengaged from the whole hoopla, mildly happy for the Canadian fans and satisfied enough with America's likely silver medal when expectations for medalling at all coming in were slim. Except now it was tied at two goals, overtime was nearly assured and the US had clawed back into the game. It was winnable.

All throughout intermission and the overtime, the crowd outside didn’t rebound. You know how crowds of long suffering teams are described while in the middle of a stomach punch loss? How years of frustration have conditioned them to always be on the outlook for the other shoe and when it looks like it’s dropping, they turtle up? That is what this looked like to me. It didn't look to me like they were expecting a loss in overtime, they didn't act hangdog, but the chanting ceased entirely and they simply stood apprehensively watching. It was like watching five thousand people live through the split seconds before an automobile accident, except it lasted for 15 minutes.

Jarome Iginla and Sidney Crosby put an end to that and the crowd erupted. Much like Friday, I think it took some time to set in because the right away reaction was not quite as exuberant as I thought given the circumstance, but by the time we ended up back at our hostel on Granville, it was a madness of overcrowding. Once again, it was not riotous, just delirious happiness. According to a police officer I asked, they were expecting 250,000 people to pass through the Granville/Robson blocked off areas that night. Go look at the full size version of the top photo. It was like that for hours across numerous downtown streets.

I am no judge of crowds but I have never seen so many people outside of ordered seating arrangements. People were climbing street lights, bus coverings, anything around and just waving Canadian flags and chanting. Nobody taunted the handful of marked Americans that I saw. They celebrated their win, not America's loss. Though I will say that the lack of rhythmically good pro-Canada chants might speak to how infrequently they are uttered up there. Go Canada Go? Somebody should have ran an instructional camp on creating syllabic-minded chants beforehand.

Making my way through the vastness of crowds gave me a new appreciation for the term "a sea of people" because that is exactly what this felt like. It ebbed and flowed like waves and completely surrounded me. At one point, we reached a choke point and like an undertow, I had a glimpse of what it might be like to be trampled by a mob or attend a Jonas Brothers concert, but that quickly passed and we made it safely through with the help of a bypass through a packed-but-not-drowning-in-crowds Sears.

On the drive back, curious as to the reactions, we listened to whatever sports radio we could find. I didn’t know what to expect but it wasn’t within a blast radius of what I ended up hearing. Caller after caller offering a brief bit of cheer for winning and then going on about how great the American team was, how they battled, how the Americans they met this weekend were friendly and had congratulated Canadian fans after the game. You’d think Canada had just won a exhibition match or something. We had a radio host literally break down on the air when we signed Ken Griffey Jr. coming off a 101-loss season. Canada had just won the hockey gold medal on their home soil and they kept it together while also managing to celebrate the triumph.

This was by no means my first or last trip in to Canada so I don’t want to come across as utterly amazed at all the hospitality. I also want to avoid leaving the impression that I was fed up with the amount of Canadian nationalism present in Vancouver. Far from it; I know how sensitive a lot of Canadians are about it sometimes. However, when we came back to the border, I have rarely felt so happy to see an American flag, flying next to a Canadian one atop the Peace Arch. I never got to see the melting pot of nationalities that I hoped for while there, but I did get a wonderful experience nonetheless. Congratulations Vancouver, you set a new bar for me in terms of public displays of joy and also in civility.

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