By DAVID JOHNSON
FOUR YEARS AGO, at the conclusion of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, I wrote a column about a kind of a ‘changing of the guard’; how athletes operate in the Olympic arena, and how the newer snowboard disciplines are kind of at the forefront of a change regarding their sport and their own success.
It seemed a good idea to repost that very same column today, so as readers head into these games, these thoughts can be in mind. At time of writing this preface, the 2022 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony literally occurred last night, so prior to the first curling rock being thrown or any alpine snow being shred.
Right off the top, yes … there is a massive story regarding China’s human rights violations; the Uighurs, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc, etc, etc. The appropriateness of the Olympics being awarded to China is a viable topic … and I am working towards a column specifically on that, but the focus today is about the Olympic athletes and the events from their own perspective, regardless of what country the games are in.
We know there are a lot of Canadians and viewers around the world who are personally ‘boycotting’ watching the events in protest. Live and repeat video feed is sent to viewers by national partners (like CBC in Canada), who have a deal with the IOC to do so. China has no control or effect on transmission of the actual events, so it strikes me as kind of odd to refuse to watch an athlete perform, as that has little to do with the host country.
China does have control over the opening and closing ceremonies, and it’s obvious these events are and will be full of Chinese Communist Party ‘political messaging’, so if viewers wanted to not watch those in protest of the CCP, that would make more sense. Again, this is about the athletes.
In addition, we already know it’s all going to look kinda weird from the TV audience side, as there will be huge limits on live spectator attendance because of COVID. It could be and likely will be … quieter in the stands, and that will maybe take a bit of the excitement away.
The next 17 days will show how affected the events are by both of these realities.
The Olympics show a gnarly change is happening in Canada
ANOTHER OLYMPICS is done, medals are distributed, anthems heard, tears shed and everyone is headed home.
I’m a huge fan of the Olympics in general, and I actually prefer the winter version. Over my many opportunities to ensconce myself in winter Olympic viewing, in front of the TV and these days surfing the CBC Olympic website, I have seen a few interesting shifts.
Back in my youth, Canadian athletes were ‘just happy to be here’ and except for a few Toller Cranston, Karen Magnussen or Nancy Greene types, not a lot of hardware was brought back home.
At some point, we decided to ‘Own The Podium’ and invested in our athletes in a new way, and it worked. Starting in Vancouver and again in Sochi we all saw the benefit of a comprehensive training and equipment / health resource system.
The focus was on gold where athletes honestly saw themselves on the top step. The expectations we usually drop on our hockey team were turned towards the rest of the mountain slopes and ice surfaces and the athletes delivered.
This time in PyeongChang our medal numbers increased again to the best ever at 29 total, leaving the U.S. behind and battling the German winter monolith for second place. Who’da thunk? Don’t be surprised if one day we not just pass Germany in the medal count, but maybe challenge Norway; the number one perennial powerhouse of winter sports.
But that’s the future, today we are still kind of wondering how our medal count was so high when quite a few of the expected medals just didn’t happen. The answer is a new crew that has slowly worked its way into the Games, and well … they’re stoked about it. Enter the X-Gamers.
In PyeongChang, this bunch racked up 11 Canadian medals in the Big Air, Ski and Board Slopestyle, Halfpipe, Moguls and Ski Cross events. That’s a full third of all the metals earned by the red and white. These alternative and extreme sports have been a part of the sponsor-based X-Games portfolio for almost two decades now, but just recently been slowly added to the Olympic schedule.
When the Canadian snowboarding team was introduced ahead of the Games, one of the first questions was lobbed up at snowboarder Tyler Nicholson about the quality of the venues.
“The course is pretty sick,” Nicholson said. The way he drawled the line drew laughs in the room, confusing poor Nicholson. He is not accustomed to the company of squares who don’t speak boarder, which inhabits only a slightly higher amplitude when compared to surfer slang.
On Tuesday last, Cassie Sharpe, a 25-year-old Albertan in the freestyle halfpipe, was asked how she felt immediately after it was announced she had won gold and she said, “Pretty gnarly.” She said it like she was talking about a really great massage.
No tears, no shrieking, no releasing years of accumulated tension.
Just, like, chill.
They are a different breed – unserious, unmuzzled, and do not treat sport as a zero-sum game. They are a tribe in their sport, not separated by the national colours they wear. They align the success of all others in the tribe, as theirs as well.
When they lose, they’re “like whatever. He was wicked dope though, right?”
Sebastien Toutant had blown it in a slopestyle final. Toutant was watching teammates Max Parrot and Mark McMorris and American Red Gerard on the big screen as they pushed their way onto the podium, and he was hyped about it. If he was disappointed, you wouldn’t know. It’s like he didn’t really mind, they had a good time. “No biggie, they’re all good homies, so I’m hyped for them.”
An hour later, he was actually sitting in a nearby KFC in full competition gear, eating fried chicken. Two days later he would pull out a gold medal in Big Air.
A downhill ski racer would be in an underground lab having his platelets replaced through one IV and receiving a full-spectrum booster through another. Slopestylers boost with poutine.
This attitude regarding winning and competitors is in contrast to the feeling you get from what we now call ‘old school’ Olympic sports. The tension on Patrick Chan’s and our Curling Skips face, and the disappointment of the women’s hockey team was clearly palpable. They were here to win, full stop. For many, their livelihoods and/or legacies depended on it.
That creates in some of them a robotic defence perimeter. Their speech is made up entirely of clichés connected by prepositions, and shows the intensity of the media training they receive.
“I’m proud to be here to represent Canada”, “… to be part of the Olympics is a wonderful thing”, even when answering a direct specific question about their not so good performance.
They can’t ever relax.
Their coaches call it focus.
X-Gamers would call it a bummer.
Winning is cool, but just not as important as respecting themselves and others. There’s something amazingly refreshing about that, coming from world class athletes.
There is another angle to keep in mind; these Freestyle athletes are pros with large multinational sponsorship contracts, working X-Game circuits that carry a lot more reputational heft in their particular world, than the Olympic Games do. For many of them, the Olympics is really just is a thing they do in their spare time, and as another way to promote their sport and their culture.
Medals are like, gnarly … but they have been known to be left behind at house parties. That’s another thing about X-Games culture in general – no one keeps score. If you don’t keep score, there is no resentment, animosity or competitive tension in the group.
What makes this all real is the lack of opposition deference. Big Air competitor Spencer O’Brien didn’t have a good Games. She stopped an interview during Big Air to admire the work of Japanese opponent Yuka Fujimori.
“Hang on, Yuka’s one of my buds,” O’Brien said, so happy she was laughing. “That was a really dope back-nine, good on her.” For these people, nationality division means nothing. They don’t expend energy on distancing themselves from their competition. They don’t think of stressing over their competition at all.
And all this non-competitive competition seems to suit Canada.
For a long while now, we have been among the best at the deep winter sports. At least, the ones you could do under a roof; speed skating, figure skating, hockey, curling, et al. Suddenly we’re a bunch of back-country halfpipe dudes with our snow pants riding low for literally the world to see — the underwear band sponsorship clearly and intentionally on display.
When no one was watching we chowed down on cheeseburgers and summer’d over at the skateboard park, and quietly slid in, as an alternative sports juggernaut.
These athletes represent the perfect hybrid of the old/new Olympic Canada. They win, but they wear their setbacks without concern. They care, but not so much their teeth are grinding through a grin. They don’t platitude the media, and they don’t comment on … or even notice North Korea politics or Russian doping.
They consider the massive hike and climb, hauling their own board up the stairs to the temporary Big Air jump platform a medal worthy effort. And in the end, they don’t just respect their opponents, they sincerely cheer for them.
Mostly, they were there to have fun.
The Olympics talks up fair play and respect, but fun – that essential building block of the sporting impulse – doesn’t get a lot of IOC marketing love, yet that’s exactly what this new generation runs on. It’s the fun that makes them want to learn how to do that Frontside Triple Cork or stomp a cab 1620, and then it’s fun for them to show the rest of us … that they figured it out.
Maybe fun is just the thing to resuscitate the Olympic brand. If so, a few of these X-Gamers in PyeongChang may be starting a future that’s totally switch in that regard, and maybe it will catch on with the youth, primed to be the next generation.
That … would be gnarly.
David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.