At the Olympics, is going for the gold un-Canadian?

By Julie Wan
Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's not easy being Canadian. Especially when you live in America. Especially when, after three blizzards, you're the only one in Washington who still likes snow. Or when your country finally wins an Olympic gold medal on home soil, and friends pat you on the back like you just took off your training wheels.

Here, you are a stranger in an alternate universe. You get mail on Saturday, celebrate Thanksgiving in November instead of October. Your occasional accent takes little effort to hide. Your assimilation can be quick.

So do you stay true to your roots, desperately hanging on to the few quirks that set you apart? Or does that very effort betray the quintessential Canadian instinct to not make waves?

From birth, Canadians are bred to be courteous, congenial, compliant. And when your country is defined by this self-effacing nature, it seems impossible to stand out without giving up your essence. In a strange way, the perfect Canadian has come to be one who does not exist.

This is the Canadian paradox. So much so that on the day before the Olympics began in Vancouver, Prime Minister Stephen Harper felt the need to give his compatriots a little pep talk.

"Patriotism as Canadians should not make us feel the least bit shy or embarrassed," Harper said. "We will ask the world to forgive us this time this uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism and pride -- our pride of being part of a country that is strong, confident and stands tall among the nations."

Some of us south of the border have already given in to such outbursts. Maybe it has something to do with the air and ethos of the United States, a place where standing out is often the only thing that matters. More likely, it has to do with the sudden rush of patriotism that comes with being an expatriate.

Like many Canadian expats, I didn't become fiercely proud and defensive until I moved to America 16 years ago. Many of us have taken to displaying our maple leaf more prominently than we might have back home. After all, it's one of the only marks distinguishing us from our neighbo(u)rs, along with more proper spelling. My husband and I have even adopted a little stuffed, maple-leaf-bearing, red-hoodie-wearing moose as our mascot, bringing him with us on all our travels (he provided much amusement to a Berber guide in the Sahara).

And I've found myself clinging to every bit of Canadian trivia I can wrangle up, as though my identity becomes clearer with each factoid I accumulate. I once spent a good chunk of a dinner conversation proving to someone that basketball was invented by a Canadian. (Ontario-born James Naismith is the father of the sport, though, admittedly, he invented it in Springfield, Mass. And yes, these assertions are often followed by such concessions.)

As the kind of quiet, awkward, bookish type who can't sit through any sort of sporting event, I nevertheless find myself camped out in front of the TV every four years (there's really only one Olympic Games in Canada, as winter is our only season), just to see how our country fares. I swear my blood pressure shot up during Canada's epic hockey rematch with Switzerland -- who beat us in Torino -- on Thursday night and subsided only after Sidney Crosby's clutch goal assured our team's survival.

I've gotten so into the patriotism that on visits back home to Toronto, I've been surprised to hear fellow Canadians disparaging our homeland. They tell me they're pretty indifferent to Canada, that "the States," as it is called up there, is kind of cooler and that Americans -- with their revolutionary past -- have more to be proud of in many ways. Canadians aren't patriotic, my compatriots tell me, Americans are. All this, of course, is appalling to an expat.

It's amid this existential crisis that I, and other Canadians, are experiencing this Olympic season. The dilemma remains: If being noticed is contrary to your nature and values, how then do you excel?

The official response of the Canadian government has been to embrace unabashed patriotism at these Games. The country has been circulating its new motto -- Own the Podium -- with the ubiquity of a Nike ad. This slogan is the official name of a five-year, $110 million-dollar initiative that was secretly orchestrated by sports federations, corporations and scientists until Canadian news magazine Macleans unveiled the details last month. The covert program has aimed to provide Canadian athletes with the very best sports technology, medicine and training -- all with the goal of winning the most medals in Vancouver and placing in the top three in the gold medal count at the Paralympic Winter Games. Maybe I've been away from home too long, but that Canadians want to win sounds, well, suspiciously American.

In a country that's long been taunted for its "shooting for bronze" mentality, such earnest, even aggressive, aspirations have made more than a few uneasy. This month, the national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, ran an article titled "Chill, Canada. Let's not go Soviet over the Olympics." The author, John Doyle, wrote: "It would be a tremendous relief if somebody talked about just enjoying the Games, doing their best and having fun. . . . Our superiority is meaningless in the great scheme of things."

We've seen this backlash against craving victory before. At the 2006 Olympics in Torino, when the Canadian women's hockey team mopped the ice with host Italy 16-0, Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry criticized them on national television for running up the score. "It's not the Canadian way," he said. (Last Saturday in Vancouver, the team faced similar comments after it beat Slovakia 18-0.)

There have also been some decidedly un-Canadian skirmishes leading up to these Games, after Canadian officials sought to incubate a certain home-court advantage by limiting the extent to which other countries' athletes could practice on our turf. Though that is common practice for Olympic hosts, many foreign athletes have claimed that Canada went too far. Some have even blamed the Georgian luger's death during a training run in part on this restriction.

Through it all, Canadian leaders have insisted that it's possible to win and still be nice. But I must confess that I've watched the Games with some ambivalence, wondering if each medal Canada wins represents another small shift in the nation's values. Part of what makes me love Canada is its regard for dignity over achievement. And whether we just can't have both, I don't know. In the meantime, my maple leaf wind chime hangs in my Capitol Hill apartment, leaving no question which team this household is cheering for.

Julie Wan is a Canadian American writer living in the District.

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