The Olympic Games are the very pinnacle of sport. No prize in the athletic world, not even the beloved Stanley Cup, can compare to an Olympic medal. To win a Stanley Cup, Super Bowl or other professional sports league trophy, you could simply be a relatively average player on the right team at the right time. To win an Olympic medal, you must be one of the three best athletes on the entire planet in a certain discipline.
But the Olympic Games are about so much more than victory. They bring entire countries together as millions of like-minded fans unite in their love for their athletic heroes. They bring out the best in the athletes themselves, as displays of unusual courage or generosity elevate certain competitors to a level that not even gold medal winners can match.
Yet far too often, these amazing Games are overshadowed by the history of their host nations, and Sochi 2014 was no exception. Months before the Opening Ceremony, countless individuals took to the Internet to express outrage at Russia’s severe laws against the gay community. More controversy erupted over the culling of stray animals and neglect of the environment, among other issues.
This outrage was justified, and there is no getting around Russia’s plethora of socio-political issues. Such issues, however, prompted a number of people to boycott the 22nd Winter Olympic Games, and I was outraged to learn of this. How is it fair to make the sincere, hard-working competitors pay for the questionable decisions of Russian President Vladimir Putin? I vowed that no matter what, I would tune in to CBC’s coverage of the Games, and I would praise the athletes over Twitter and Facebook. I didn’t believe that the Olympics should ever be tangled up with politics and societal problems that have nothing to do with them.
And so began a two-week roller coaster of emotions. I watched the Dufour-Lapointe sisters take gold and silver in moguls skiing and was propelled to my first high. Their efforts, combined with the bronze won by an injured Mark McMorris in snowboard slopestyle, seemed to set the stage for an epic and inspirational run by Team Canada.
More victories came. Alex Bilodeau defended his moguls gold, doing what no man had ever done before. Charles Hamelin made a victory in the 1500-metre short track look easy. Dara Howell took up the slack in ski slopestyle, winning gold while her teammate Kim Lamarre surprised everyone with bronze. The figure skating team clinched silver.
The swath of triumphs early on caused me to be naively unprepared for the eventual disappointments. Hamelin literally fell short in his subsequent races. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canada’s sweetheart ice dancers, were denied gold in what many perceived as a pure judging snafu. Justin Dorey, a Canadian medal favourite in men's ski half pipe, fell on both his final runs.
These setbacks were difficult to watch, and indignity soon began to well up within me. Why was it that such amazing and classy Canadians were being victimized by fate, while others were experiencing an overload of success? It didn’t seem fair, and for a brief time, I resented other athletes, particularly those from the rival United States. Like many others, I was starting to get carried away by the medal count.
Fortunately, I was able to purge such resentment from my mind once I allowed myself a rational outlook on the situation. I realized once again that the Olympics were about so much more than the medal count. Each athlete has sacrificed so much just to make their national team. Indeed, there were many displays of dignity being carried out by non-Canadian competitors in both victory and defeat.
Take Alexander Ovechkin of the Russian men’s hockey team for example. Here is a man who has a reputation for being arrogant on the ice, a player I have always disliked for that very reason. Yet when Russia was upset by Finland in the quarterfinals, Ovechkin was the only member of his squad to speak to the media after the game. He was clearly devastated, but still plucked up the strength to carry out an interview with a straight face and candid words. You need not be a fan of Ovechkin, Russia or even hockey in general to respect that act.
And ultimately, Team Canada did have one hell of a run. Gilmore Junio relinquished his spot on the speed skating team so Denny Morrison could win silver and bronze. Jan Hudec ended a 20-year medal drought for Canada in alpine skiing. Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse made history by defending their gold in bobsleigh. Utter domination by the curling teams and legendary conquests by both hockey squads. The men’s unit pulled off epic, one-goal triumphs against a surprisingly resilient Latvia and the favoured United States en route to gold, but it was the women who truly stole the show with their epic comeback victory.
To those who are still too hung up over Russia's socio-political problems to appreciate these Games as I have, I say this: Russia can change. Russia will change, for its citizens have demonstrated their ability to act with grace and honour. From the volunteers who made the Games possible and asked for nothing in return, to the individuals who provided such world-class sports venues, the men and women of Sochi have proven their worth as global citizens.
Not a single athlete complained about their experience, and so we should stop complaining about this year’s Winter Olympics. Putin’s government does not define the essence of his nation, and injustices carried out by his administration will be rectified. If anything, Sochi 2014 has given Russians a chance to practice acceptance and rise above the regime that governs them.
Now, the 22nd Olympic Winter Games have concluded, and I am left with a wistful feeling in my heart. It has been more than an honour to cheer on the Canadian Olympic team, whom I believe are some of the best and classiest athletes on the globe.