Each Olympic Games ends with an overdose of redemption. Who, after 17 days, can stand yet another tearjerker about overcoming tragedy or proving doubters wrong? But gird yourself because the last feel-good tale out of Vancouver is unlike any other seen at sports' five-ring circus. No host nation has ever made a comeback as stunning as Canada's at the 2010 Winter Olympics. But then, none ever needed it more.
The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and, to a lesser degree, a mechanical failure during the lighting of the Olympic cauldron made the first day of the 2010 Winter Games an unprecedented disaster. Vancouver officials leaped to lay blame on Kumaritashvili—while altering the wall, ice and start at the hyperfast luge track—and after ticket cancellations due to bad weather were handled clumsily and visitors were kept from approaching the gorgeous cauldron by a tacky chain-link fence, these Olympics began to feel like the work of panicky amateurs.
Canada's athletes, meanwhile, kept losing. Once, that wouldn't have caused much concern. Canada has always been the perfect Olympic host, having graciously allowed its guests to win all the gold medals at the 1976 Summer Games and the '88 Winter Games, in Montreal and Calgary, respectively. But this time was supposed to be different. In 2005 the Canadian Olympic Committee launched a $110 million Olympic support drive. The oft-stated goal of the audaciously—and some would say Americanly—named Own the Podium program was Winter Olympic domination, to be confirmed by winning the most medals in Vancouver.
But dismal early performances, especially by Canada's Alpine skiers, ensured that this wouldn't happen. As the U.S. quietly—some would say Canadianly—rolled to its best showing at a Winter Games, the Maple Leaf crumbled early and often. Critics pounced. In the run-up to the Olympics, foreign athletes were given limited access to Canadian training sites, and Canadians' foreign training partners, such as U.S. speedskater Shani Davis, were banned outright. Now some critics wondered if such xenophobia had hurt Canadian athletes, or if the pressure to win had backfired. "I feel like I have let my country down," wept Mellisa Hollingsworth, the No. 1--ranked skeleton racer, after finishing fifth on Feb. 19. Two days later the U.S. beat the home team in hockey 5--3, and Canada's Olympics hit bottom.
Yet despite these failures, in the stands and the streets "a euphoria, a change" began to take hold, according to Vancouver Organizing Committee chief John Furlong. Sidewalks were jammed night and day with thousands who had taken to heart jingoistic slogans like "The world needs more Canada." No one could recall ever seeing so many Maple Leaf flags, or so many normally reticent Canucks wearing Team Canada gear. "It's more profound than anything I have ever experienced," said Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Rudge.
"Canadians have been waiting for a reason to be proud of their culture," explained Shane Koyczan, the slam poet whose poem We Are More electrified the opening ceremonies. "The most important thing to come out of these Games is that Canada is starting to come together as a nation and a people and embrace that identity."
Still, midway through the final week, Canada had won only six gold medals and 11 medals overall—far less than half of the U.S. total. Then came Joannie Rochette's stirring skate in the short program on Feb. 23 and what Rudge called "Wonderful Wednesday," when Canada won four medals and crushed Russia 7--3 in the hockey quarterfinals. For the first time Canadian athletes looked as if they were playing at home. The pressure eased, and more flags sprouted in the street.
The new national obsession with medal counts had its detractors, among them one of Canada's greatest Olympians, speedskater Clara Hughes. "It's not 'Canadian,' I know," Hollingsworth said. "But I love this newfound confidence that we have in our abilities. We always had talent and great athletes, and maybe they didn't shine on the world stage because they lacked support. Now we've had that support; it's exciting. We should not be ashamed of it. I love the attitude that we're going to come in and own the podium."
If not outright, they certainly claimed a big share. When the Games ended, Canada emerged with a best-ever 26 medals, good for third place, and set a Winter Olympic record with 14 golds. The 3--2 win over Team USA in the hockey final was the perfect finish, of course. But if it was right to assume, at the start, that the national game would make or break these Olympics, it was wrong at the end. Win or lose in hockey, the change in Canada was the best tale in town.