What Are the Olympics Doing to Canada-America Relations?

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Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Today the American and Canadian men's hockey teams enter the Olympic semifinals. If they both win, we'll be treated to a rematch between the countries. New York's Adam Sternbergh and Intel Chris decided to have a chat about their surprising game earlier this week, and the delicate dance the countries have been engaged in since the beginning of the Olympics.


C.R.: In the news, mostly on NBC, there's been this projection that the Canadians are reluctantly casting off this natural reserve to cheer for games or athletes. What do you think of that?
A.S.: First off, Canadians are nice and polite. This is well known to anyone who's met one.
C.R.: In my experience that's the case.
A.S.: But there is a sort of national tsuris that accompanies Canadian hockey, which I have often likened to England's relationship to the World Cup, or Boston's relationship to the Red Sox, but times a million.


C.R.: So the idea that they’ve previously just been sitting quietly rinkside is a little silly.
A.S.: Well, Canadians definitely cheer for hockey without reservation — but I think that's true of all sports.
C.R.: It seems, then, that the American attitude when they won the hockey game earlier this week — the "Oh God, Canada has NOTHING" attitude — must have been extra insidious.
A.S.: Well, to me, as a former Canadian living in the U.S., and watching the Olympics (kind of) through a U.S. lens, it seemed ironic that people took this tone of pitying Canada right when everyone seemed to be agreeing that Canada was doing a lot of things right. Health care, for example. Or the fact that Paul Krugman is blowing kisses to the Canadian banking system from the op-ed page of the Times.
C.R.: And yet that's the universal attitude — at least as presented in the media. "Sorry we're winning all your golds, Canada." "Sorry our awesomeness accidentally crushed someone's dream." Joyful pity.
A.S.: Canada certainly wants to do well in its home Olympics, no doubt, but last I checked, Canada was tied with the U.S. for golds, no? With one-tenth the population.
C.R.: It strikes me that this idea of worrying about them is very put on. It's not our job to worry about that. Worrying about the success of others isn't part of the Olympics.
A.S.: I guarantee that, if the Olympics weren't in Canada, NBC would never mention Canada even once — except maybe in hockey. But that's become part of the narrative — how does CANADA feel?
A.S.: Pretty much like every country, I suspect — rooting for its athletes, etc.
C.R.: In China, there wasn't this attitude of, "Oh no, a Chinese person lost." It was, "We have got to beat these motherloving 11-year-olds into the ground!"
A.S.: Of course, in China, that was after everyone was thrown into a panic by the mechanistic beauty of the opening.
C.R.: I think the Canadian opening was a real comfort to the U.S. (and to the U.K., no doubt). It was appealing that it was a little boring, there was a glitch, and most of the people seemed to be borrowed from U.S. pop culture (even though, really, we have Bryan Adams et al. on semi-permanent loan from Canada).
A.S.: See, I can't be objective, because seeing Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash, and Terry Fox's mother together in one place automatically makes me blubber. But I see your point.
C.R.: But that's what it's supposed to be for — Canada and the richness of Canada. (Though I'm sure more than one American was wondering if we'd ever let our own American Indians participate so prominently.)
A.S.: Though you had to love Measha Bruggergossman!
C.R.: Oh, I just had to Google who that is. But yeah, she kicked ass.
A.S.: The weird thing for me is that this Olympics is being played out in the context, for Americans, of: Our financial system is in ruins, our health care's a disaster, here's this country to the north that kind of has those things figured out and, oh, by the way, allows gay marriage and lets you smoke pot. So there's almost a relief when Canada doesn't win a gold, because it's like "See! You haven't figured it all out!"
A.S.: "Ha! Your fourth arm of your torch thing faltered!"
C.R.: But this posturing, this pitying role that NBC's adopted — it may be in part a sense that viewers want America to put on a brave face in the presence of their ongoing successes and our current weakness — but also, NBC probably rightly assumes that many, if not most, Americans really aren't thinking of Canada very much, and leading up to the Olympics had to be taught about it: that it's huge. That most of the population lives south of Maine.
C.R.: That Kim Cattrall is from there!
A.S.: Well, I think it's partly just the usual NBC/USA jingoistic nonsense that even makes many Americans embarrassed. But also a bit of, "Okay, Canada, let's see what you got. Sure, you've figured out health care, but can you luge?"
C.R.: But the reaction to the hockey win — in the context of your view that we are, in some way, afraid of Canada and what it represents — really seems to make sense. I'm just not sure that it wasn't part of the standard U.S. victory dance for sports fans. The whole "I drank your milkshake" thing.
A.S.: It seemed weird, because USA hockey is actually pretty good. It's not like Namibia beating Canada in hockey.
C.R.: Right.
A.S.: It seemed kind of embarrassing, actually. One blog called it, tongue-in-cheek, the "Improbability on Ice." Do you believe in improbabilities?!
C.R.: Part of the problem is that NBC weaves nation into athletes' narratives way too much. It's one thing if you have to win for your country because back home your mother is being tickled over a flame pit while you're in Vancouver ice dancing. It's another to be Lindsay Vonn, where really, it's all about you and your brand.
A.S.: That's true.
C.R.: What do you think the takeaway from this is going to be?
A.S.: There's a quote in a Richard Ford novel, which I will now recall from memory and mangle, that, like many Americans, he suspected secretly that Canada had all the good parts of the U.S., but without all the guns. There's kind of something to that — I think it's come up in these games.
A.S.: Make no mistake: Canadians care about how these Olympics are perceived, both all over the world and in the USA.
C.R.: But are Americans going to leave having comfortably adjusted themselves into believing that the only things important to Canadians are winter sports? And put out of mind their other successes for a while? I wonder.
A.S.: I think Canadians will be disappointed to think that the Games were thought of as somewhat mismanaged, etc.
C.R.: Yeah — hough they always, always are.
A.S.: Really, the bottom line is that, if Canada wins hockey gold, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS. All will be forgiven.
C.R.: I think we can all agree on that.
A.S.: Also, every think piece about Canada from now on should avoid using "eh." Or any pun on "Blame Canada." The end.