Perhaps the most fruitful approach to the Sochi Winter Olympics is to see the event as a kind of fairy tale.
Or it could be a journey-fable. A fantasy. We send a group of our best young people to a strange, forbidding place ruled by an ogre, and expect them to return with treasures in gold, silver and bronze. It's a fraught mission. In the sinister place where we send our bravest, the fun is forbidden. The ogre's greedy pals get rich from corruption and plots are hatched to make sure that friendly, smiling visitors never get the precious gold.
In this fable, first we send our graceful maidens and winsome youths. Then we send our warriors. That would be when the men's hockey starts.
What happens next is up to the gods. Or else it's rigged. We can never be sure because there's a bit of collision between fantasy and reality at the Olympics.
There is a point to most fables. The people sending out their young to get gold, silver and bronze from the ogre's domain need the precious metals to forge some thingamajig that will save lives. Or maybe they're just insecure and need to have the precious metals to feel good about themselves. The latter would be Canada's situation. It makes for a lot of surreal moments. Some ongoing and some, but not all of them, evident from TV coverage.
Women's hockey is under way and on Wednesday Canada plays the U.S.A. in the preliminary round. As fine as our players are, they are measured only by comparison with the Americans. There isn't another team capable of beating Canada or the U.S. The game's status at the Olympics is dangling by a thread, as it should. Only two teams matter. Yet we take it seriously – with only one authentic opponent in the whole wide world! It's absurd – an extension of our hockey fable. Our game etc. The dubious patriotism of a needy people.
And then there's matter of those who don't win in Sochi. Spencer O'Brien, tops in the world in slope style snowboarding, expected to come back with gold, finished last of 12. She was devastated and crying, blurting, "I'm sorry I let Canada down." Mother of god, that's heartbreaking. Right there, the power of the fable in play. No sense of the reality that you just had a really bad day. You didn't, dear child, literally carry Canada's hopes on your back. That's the fantasy talk they tell you to get you pumped up.
O'Brien needed to be comforted, nudged a bit in the direction of the division between fantasy and reality. Instead, what she got from Ron MacLean on CBC was a windy tale about some NHL player who was No.1 during a season and then No. 12 the next. Sometimes Ron MacLean really needs to shut up about hockey.
Mot surreal of all, and beggaring understanding in fable or reality is the circumstance of Russian coach/choreographer Marina Zoueva, who works as coach to both Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and their main rivals, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
During the team figure skating event, Zoueva could be seen in the Canadian kiss 'n cry box wearing a Team Canada jacket, and seen slipping out of it to go next door to the American area. Next thing, she turns up wearing a Team USA jacket as Davis and White finish their routine and await the results. Hello? There are theatrical comedies of disguise, farces, less implausible than this quick costume change. But, one supposes, the instance is a necessary reminder of the distance between fable and reality – in sport, some people are mercenary, working for multiple causes.
As for Tessa and a Scott, don't get me started. Like most of Canada I'm smitten. They are ice dancers of astonishing ability and skill. However, they are not, as much of Canada would like, a couple. Their relationship is complicated, strangely adult in its subtlety, and real. In a fable they'd be sweethearts. This isn't a fable.
None of it is. People are writing me letters and e-mails telling me that the Olympics are "a showcase for human excellence." That isn't real, either. It's just part of the fable. It's what is used to send our young people off to that sinister country run by an ogre. It's not the fable that teaches us much. And sometimes puts excessive weight on young shoulders. They believe, because we tell them, that fairy tales come true. The tales are for us though, and they are escapism, not reality.
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