James Lawton: Brave Rochette causes Canada to examine values

Rochette showed a moving combination of grace and guts. She gave the best of herself
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When winning and losing in sport is made to seem pretty much a matter of life and death, what do you do when the real thing occurs?

If you are Joannie Rochette, a 24-year-old figure skater from small-town Quebec, you go out to give one of the performances of your career.

You also throw a light on the arbitrary madness which for nearly two weeks of these 21st Olympic games has been picking out young athletes, and it seems especially those who have carried the burden of expectation placed on them by the host nation Canada, and placing them in the categories of untrammeled success and crushing failure.

If Rochette's nerve and spirit holds, she is expected to pick up bronze when she completes her programme in the old ice hockey palace of the Pacific Coliseum here tonight. Already though, she has defined the differences between the often superb triviality of sport and the demands of real life.

Three days ago her mother and greatest and most exuberant fan, Theresa, arrived here to support her daughter. Within 24 hours she was dead, the victim of a heart attack at 55 years of age.

There were flashes of torment on the face of her daughter before, during and after her performance, and inevitable tears, but in the auditorium it was though the collective will of the people kept her safe through the most ambitious of her moves. That, and the resolve of a fine competitor to honour the memory of a most supportive parent the best way she could. She did it with a moving combination of grace and guts. She honoured her mother with the best of herself.

Rochette brought a considerable body of success to the great trial of both her career and her life.

She was on skates at the age of two and has always expressed her thanks to her mother for the time and the money involved in supporting her skating career – and a youthful interest in a wide range of sports. Coming into the Pacific Coliseum on Tuesday night, she was a six-time Canadian champion and in Turin four years ago she was just two places from an Olympic medal.

When she left the arena she waved her hand to the crowd and then placed it against her heart before blowing a kiss.

Back in Quebec a bearded bartender spoke of hometown pride and went, it seemed to some, to the core of the matter. "We are proud of Joannie not just because she is a great skater but also because she is such a good person. It must have been very hard to do what she did tonight, but she did it so well."

Meanwhile, for many Canadians celebrating this example of the very best of their values, there was still the thorny and somewhat schizophrenic issue of whether to embrace or reject the Own the Podium policy which has been so relentlessly criticised – and defended – over the last few days.

British Columbia's premier Gordon Campbell is the latest to throw his support behind a slogan which some Canadians, who believe it is essentially so out of national character, have re-christened Disown the Podium.

Campbell said: "I have never known someone to go into a sport and say, 'I'd like to come third! I'm No 3! I'm number 3. They like to come out No 1 and that's where we want them to be."

As it stands, Canada, buoyed by a surge of two golds after a weekend spent in the wilderness, are placed fifth but just one gold behind the seven gained by an American team who have derisively claimed that if they do not own the podium they have simply taken it over for a few crucial weeks.

The heady belief that the Canadians may yet beat the Americans on the gold standard rested hugely on the hope that the standard-bearing men's ice hockey team could survive the challenge of the talented Russians in the quarter final game played in the early hours of this morning, that the women's team will beat the United States in their final today and that the two-woman bobsled team of Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse could maintain their lead in the last two runs.

Much of this regained momentum was supplied by the free spirit of Ashleigh McIvor, a 26-year-old ski cross gold medal winner who once wrote a high school paper on why the event should be included in the Olympic programme.

For Canada it was the most uplifting scenario – an overwhelming hometown winner and snow falling, not from the hold of a helicopter but the skies above a previously rain-drenched Cypress Mountain. McIvor drove Norway's Hedda Berntsen and France's Marion Josserand into the lower rungs of the podium with a performance of extraordinary freedom, in sharp contrast to some of the careworn Canadian athletes who appeared to be overwhelmed by the pressure under which they had been operating for the best part of four years.

The winner declared: "It's the most amazing moment of my entire life. It worked out and I can't believe it. I stood there at the start gate and thought, 'Everything in my life has led me here. I felt I was made for this event. It's my hometown. What else could I ask for?"

Who could answer that question better than Joannie Rochette?

What to watch today: Day 14

Ice hockey women's finals

The top four places in the women's ice hockey tournament are decided; with the gold medal game contested by Canada and their arch-rivals the US. (1.00am, BBC 2, Eurosport)

Curling semi-finals

The men's and women's semi-finals take place with hosts Canada in both competitions. (7.00pm and 11.20pm BBC 2, Eurosport)

Figure skating women's free

Korean sensation Kim Yu-na goes head-to-head with Canada's girl of the moment, Joannie Rochette. (3.00am, BBC 2, Eurosport)