James Lawton: Canada show signs of cracking under the weight of expectation
Ice hockey goaltenders would rather auction their soul than display frail human emotion
Tuesday 23 February 2010
You might have thought it could hardly have been worse here in this beautiful city, which is regularly voted the most desirable place to live in North America. But the authorities knew rather better.
Losing to the United States in a vital ice hockey game, on a weekend when a stream of Canadian athletes provided hollow-faced evidence of the pressures brought by the madcap Own the Podium policy, was indeed something of a national catastrophe. But it didn't lead to a riot in which more than 200 were injured, cars were overturned, store fronts smashed, tear-gas shells fired and hospitals closed their doors against the weeping victims.
That would have made a funeral pyre of the great redemption of these Winter Olympics – a non-stop downtown party by home and visiting fans eager to celebrate the sheer joy of continuous international sports action.
There were various reasons why it didn't happen, as it did in one of a normally well ordered city's most shameful episodes 16 years ago.
One of them was that the authorities turned off the giant screens showing Canada's slide to defeat against the Americans, one consequence of which is that they have to crowd in an extra game, against Germany today, before meeting the dangerous, brilliantly talented Russians on Thursday. It also helped that government-owned liquor stores were ordered to close their doors hours earlier than usual.
It was said that the screens were shut down not because of fears about the mood turning ugly but gridlock in the downtown, an odd claim in that the streets had been jammed ever since the Olympic flame was ignited at the end of the opening ceremony 10 days earlier.
No, we can be sure enough that also in the official mind was the spectre of that grave disturbance that came on a summer's night in 1994.
Then, rioters roamed the streets after the Vancouver Canucks had lost the Stanley Cup series against New York Rangers in the final game at Madison Square Garden.
On that occasion around 500 officers of the Vancouver City and Royal Mounted Police were required to stem a riotous tide that did not abate until the dawn. This last weekend police and security manpower was hugely enhanced, thanks to a budget which had soared from an original estimate of around C$100m to more than C$1 billion (£620m). The bill may have been huge, but maybe no greater than the relief which came with yesterday's morning evidence that no more than the usual street cleaning was required.
The really huge mopping up operation is now facing Canada's suddenly embattled ice hockey coach, Mike Babcock, and the putative, 22-year-old legend Sidney Crosby. They carry the burden of rescuing what one of Vancouver's morning papers headlined as "Canada's Lost Weekend".
This will be attempted, it seems reasonable to anticipate, in the absence of veteran Martin Brodeur, who as downcast goalminders go surely now occupies the terrain trod by England's David Seaman when he allowed the floating free-kick of Brazil's Ronaldinho to so damage England's World Cup prospects in Japan eight years ago.
Unlike Seaman, Brodeur didn't weep – ice hockey goaltenders would, traditionally, rather auction their soul than display some of the frailer aspects of human emotion – but the physical evidence was that his competitive nerve is in shreds and that he will inevitably give way to local hero Roberto Luongo.
For the Vancouver Canucks goaltender it is a dubious chalice indeed. Though Brodeur had a poor game, and was utterly overshadowed by his American counterpart, Ryan Miller, who made more than 40 apparently nerveless saves, he was required to carry the blame almost exclusively.
There may be some lessons here for Britain on the approach to the London Olympics. You can throw as much money as you like at your athletes, you can promise gongs and the very best in financial assistance, but there is a point where you can simply, and quite grotesquely, overload the level of expectation.
Canada, if nothing else, have provided the ultimate lesson in this. Defeat, it seems, is not so much a personal sorrow as a national reproach.
Under the shadow of the ice hockey crisis, there was abundant evidence of this in the "lost weekend". While former British Columbia premier Glen Clark, who has remade his life as a successful businessman after falling from office in a political scandal, could still see only the positive signs, some athletes were clearly buckling under the pressure. Clark said: "You know what the best part of this is, it's the incredible patriotism, people breaking out into spontaneous singing of 'O Canada'. It's very, very cool. I love it."
That declaration was in sharp contrast to the mood of speed skater Denny Morrison, just one of a clutch of Canadian contenders who was judged to have come up miserably short of the nation's hopes. Morrison first blamed Canada's speed-skating programme for his underperformance. Then he made a public apology. He said: "What I said last night was after my race and made out of frustration. It was because I got ninth and wanted to win, and had looked forward to performing in this race for four years. I didn't realise the impact of what I was saying."
Canadian heroine Mellisa Hollingsworth, hugely hyped to win the skeleton gold on the home track that Britain's Amy Williams annexed so profoundly without any high expectations but her own, wept copiously as she bemoaned the fact that she had let everybody down.
It is not a pretty sight, this trial by something that can only be described as a form of mass hysteria. Owning the podium – which in its sudden notoriety is now instantly recognised in the contraction OTP – was always a crass policy in its demand that Canada win most medals here. For the moment, the hope is that Norway will be overtaken in the last days of competition and third place will be gained in the wake of the American juggernaut.
This is Canada's pain but, surely, everyone's lesson.
Abramovich's past is irrelevant in the Cole saga
Some people are apparently assailing Roman Abramovich with the charge of hypocrisy following reports that he is anxious for some of his highly paid employees at Chelsea to stop behaving as though they are answerable only to their own day-by-day, minute-by-minute impulses.
This is amusing for anyone who has long been troubled by the fact that Abramovich's cosmic wealth, and ability to place one of England's football clubs among his personal playthings, has flowed from the mineral wealth of a largely impoverished country where social justice remains as remote as it was all those years ago when the Winter Palace was stormed.
However, it does seem reasonable that professionals like John Terry and Ashley Cole are being warned that their responsibilities run a little deeper than merely trotting on the field.
If you take someone's coin, whatever its origins, you are obliged to follow his tune. In this case, in terms of the image of football, at least, it has a value that surely cannot be disputed.
Woods' contrition is nothing to be smug about
An unscientific survey suggests that on this side of the Atlantic, as in Britain, the majority view is that Tiger Woods' confessional was just another example of corporate salesmanship.
All he was doing, we are told by the most cynical persuasion, is propping up the brand.
In such a situation we are, I suppose, left with our own instincts, our own ability to separate that which is bogus from the other possibility that a man who was the author of one of the most vertiginous descents in the history of public life had faced the world and accepted total responsibility for his situation.
He is accused of an Oscar performance in reading his lines. Yet anyone who had any kind of sustained contact with the meteoric rise of Woods had only to look into his face to see the effects of the last few months on what used to be an impenetrable self-confidence.
Woods' assertion was that he would attempt to gain strength at a most severely broken place. None of us could do better than that, except, it seems, those who seem lost in the Himalaya range of their abiding smugness.
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