Op-ed column: Winter games let nations compete in harmony, not war

I knew the song “O Canada” long before it became the Canadian National Anthem in 1980. Years later,

I knew the song “O Canada” long before it became the Canadian National Anthem in 1980.

I learned it when I was in the sixth grade. For some reason, it was in my music book “Easy Trumpet Solos” and I played it every day. I loved that horn, which still sits somewhere in a crawl space in a closet upstairs, and would eventually play it all through college, alternating in high school with the baritone horn. I never forgot that book of solos, and it coincidentally instilled in me an interest in Canada.

Years later, a friend of mine and I decided to take a motorcycle trip all the way across Canada. Destination: Vancouver.

It was a pretty ambitious goal, since we only had a month to get all the way across and back again. We didn’t make it. We ran out of time in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (I love that name), when we decided to stop at a folk music festival and then head south, returning through the Dakotas, stopping in Chicago and returning to New York using every day of the month we had.

I still haven’t been to the west coast of Canada, but touring a good part of it on motorcycles certainly provided an insight and a fondness for the country and its people.

It is a beautiful land with breathtaking views of mountains and lakes and the friendliest people this side of Europe. We slept in a couple of pup tents, but never had to find a campground. Every day around dusk we would stop in the closest town and ask where we could camp for the night (this question is best asked in a tavern) and, inevitably, we wound up in the town park or in someone’s yard at the insistence of the local populace.

It reminds me a lot of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the people and the land are very much like Canada. In fact, if you tour the UP you will be getting a pretty good idea of what central Canada is like. Lake Superior, from either side, is as majestic and awe-inspiring as any lake I’ve ever seen. It’s like an ocean; you literally can’t see the other shore. And its history and majesty connects both of our countries in ways that symbolize our symbiotic relationship throughout modern history.

Anticipated viewing

When Vancouver was awarded the Olympic games for the winter of 2010, I was pleased and excited to see the city, albeit on TV, that I never got to see all those years ago. I was also surprised to see the first news poll of a local TV station that concluded the games might not be as popular as I thought they would. When asked if they would watch (1) All (2) Some (3) Little or (4) None of the Olympics, the mode was No. 4, meaning more people said none than any of the other choices. I don’t know if that has held true throughout the two weeks of the games. Actually, I think the ratings have been quite high.

And then, the games got snake-bit.

It began with the death of the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a practice run before the games began. Then there was the lack of snow (they had to truck it in!), the fog and rain (six inches of rain in six days), bad ice, high temperatures (on Feb. 16 it was 50 degrees in both Vancouver and the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans), and the Olympic flame wouldn’t work. With no help from Al Gore, it looked as though the games would be doomed. Should the National Anthem be changed to “O Poor Canada”?

Added to all of this was the difficulty of garnering interest in sports that most of us don’t do or don’t even know. I had to look up “skeleton,” only to find out it is a sled upon which you lie belly down, face first, sort of like we did on our sleds when we were kids. Except we didn’t go 60-plus miles an hour. In very few American households do you hear, “Hey honey, gather up the kids, I’ll get the luge and we’ll hit the slopes.”

There are kids doing “half-pipe” dressed in what appear to be pajamas, and skiers shooting at targets in the biathlon, and curling, a sort of shuffleboard on ice (which we have here in Schenectady), as well as people jumping off mountains with skis on, and moguls, slaloms, and freestyle aerials. So much to watch and so little to understand.

Gathering interest

NBC has devoted an entire two weeks of extensive programming to these Olympic games, and as they entered the second week, the ratings and popularity did begin to rise. Familiar sports began to surface. Figure skating and ice hockey were right there with bobsledding and short track. Bob Costas and Chris Collinsworth did a fine job with the coordinated announcing and special features, and Vancouver began to rise above the broken flame and claim a place in the ratings; except, of course, when Syracuse played Georgetown or Siena played Butler in the basketball bracket-busters.

I ended up watching quite a bit of these Olympics. I watched sports I wasn’t familiar with, and many that I enjoyed. As you’re reading this on this Sunday, the games are concluding, but the men’s ice hockey gold medal game will be played and it will surely attract a large audience. I certainly will be watching.

I learned to appreciate watching sports that I could never do, or wouldn’t do even if I knew what they were. But the one piece that stands out in my mind was the athletes themselves. Young, for the most part, polite, caring and seemingly happy just to participate. They were well-spoken, mature, attractive in their demeanor and smiles, while determined and tenacious. Some, still in their 20s, have already started charities to help the less fortunate around the world. I watched these athletes with a new respect not only for their accomplishments, but for their attitudes and their ability to smile through the losses as well as the victories.

Best of youth

So, in spite of Vancouver’s bad luck, and the scattered worldwide criticism for one reason or another, the games, in my mind, were a success. And there is something to be said for the world of nations sending their youth to compete under their national flags and their national anthems; to fight their battle of skills on the snow and ice, and claim victory on a podium as their country is honored.

The Olympics symbolize the best in our youth and our nations. If only we could all learn from their sportsmanship. And they certainly are a far better way for nations to compete, than to send their youth to fight and die on the sands of far-away lands.

Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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