The main part of the city is like one giant carnival that seemingly doesn’t end for the 16-day duration of the Olympics. As you walk the streets, you can be entertained by musicians, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, and street performers of all types. There are public works of art, like trees displaying lanterns decorated by Vancouver school children. Every few blocks you come across a public pavilion, such as LiveCity Downtown where you can party in the streets as coverage is shown live on giant elevated screens. There’s also Robson Square where children skate on the free public rink and above the brave soar from one tower to another on a zip line. There are houses dedicated to different regions of Canada, such as the Northern House where culture, art, and sports from the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut are featured. While there, we saw a couple of young athletes demonstrating the two-foot high-kick, an Inuit game where they have to jump and, with both feet, touch a target elevated from a pole up to eight-plus feet off the ground, then land solidly on both feet. Nations also host their own party centers, such as the German Deutsche Haus or the Dutch Heineken House. Many of these hot-spots were inaccessible unless you were willing to wait an hour or more in line, such as the Royal Canadian Mint where in the rain visitors lined the streets in three different directions hoping to gain access to the place that produced the Olympic medals and also minted the popular Canadian Olympic quarter collection.
The main reason for my visit was to attend an Olympic hockey game. It’s no secret that I’m a die-hard hockey fan and I decided some time ago that Olympic hockey was an item on my Bucket List. Seeing as Vancouver is only a six to seven hour drive north of my hometown of Portland, this was clearly my easiest chance to make good on that promise to myself. There’s little chance, for example, that I’m going to make my way to Sochi in 2014. I dutifully got involved in the ticket sales process a whopping three years ago, receiving periodic e-mails on when and how I could enter the lottery to earn a chance to pay an arm and a leg to attend my Olympic events of choice. When I finally got a chance to purchase my tickets, during the second sales phase about a year prior to the Opening Ceremony, I balked at the prices for medal round hockey tickets. Not wanting to sign up for an as-yet-to-be-assigned round-robin game (which, no offense to these non-hockey-powerhouses, could feature a match-up such as Belarus vs. Latvia), I settled on a semi-final game, guaranteeing myself a chance to see some medal-contending teams.
As luck would have it, Team USA somewhat overachieved by winning all three of their round-robin games, including a shocking 5-3 victory over Canada, and ended up ranked first of twelve teams coming out of the preliminary round. They then won the required match-ups to put them in the very semi-final I had tickets for! Perfect!
On the way into the venue for the game we dutifully bought a couple of American flags to counteract the sea of blue-and-white Finnish flags entering the arena around us. Once we reached our seats we found ourselves near another couple of people from Portland, who came up for the same two nights in Vancouver to see the very same hockey game. Funny! I should mention that the prospect of purchasing advanced lodging for the Olympics in Vancouver was out of the question. If I thought the tickets were ridiculously expensive, the hotel rooms were even more so. After first planning to somehow finagle my way across the border and back in a single day (complicated by the fact you cannot park at any of the Olympic venues), I luckily took some well-timed advice and looked for lodging again less than a month prior to the games. It was still expensive, but I was able to find an at least somewhat-affordable room, thus taking a major stress off the traveling and transportation component of the trip and giving me some more time to take in the sights of the Olympics.
For those who didn’t see the game, Team USA cruised to a 6-0 lead over the Finnish team just thirteen minutes into the game. It didn’t give much for the mostly-Canadian crowd to cheer about, seeing as most of them were eager to see the USA ousted from the tournament as payback for beating their beloved Canadians earlier in the tournament, but it allowed me to get plenty of use out of the aforementioned US flag! Sure, it may have been more exciting to see a slightly more competitive match-up, but not being involved in a nail-biter gave me a chance to sit back and enjoy the fact of watching live some of my favorite NHL superstars, such as the US goaltender Ryan Miller and forward Ryan Kesler.
On the way out of the venue, the Canadian fans, always good-natured, would shout, “We’ll see you in the final!” after spotting my American flag. Canada was involved in the second semi-final later in the afternoon against a surprising Slovakian squad, and their game definitely fell into the nail-biter category during the last few minutes when the Slovaks put up a pair of goals to make it 3-2. I was out for dinner at the time and it was the loudest I’ve ever seen a restaurant over a sporting event. Every TV screen in the place was tuned in to the game and every eye in the building was glued to the screens. Fans cheered “Luuuuuooooo” every time Team Canada goalie Roberto Luongo made a save, and during the last minute of play all the waitresses (including the one who took my order while watching the TV screen above my head) huddled in the corner to see the last few tense seconds of action, because, really, who wanted to order anything at a time like that?!
One note on Olympic TV coverage, since I have heard so many people state-side complain about our US broadcasting: I’m actually very appreciative of the NBC primetime coverage every night. While I do wish there was the opportunity to watch events live like there is in Canada, the primetime coverage in Canada every night left a lot to be desired. It was repetitive, would often tell you the results before showing the event, and they also failed to show any highlights at all of some events. It’s funny that despite the TVs all over the city, I actually saw much more of the Olympic sporting events at home in front of my TV every night than while I was at the Games!
Spending two nights in the Olympic city turned out to be plenty for me. While I by no means saw all there was to see, with all the crowds and excitement and walking I was beat every night, and flat out exhausted by the time I crossed back into the United States. At times it felt overwhelming, particularly for this nature lover who spends the better part of each year living on an island with a population that is less than half of the capacity of a hockey arena. Still, it was memorable, and I’m glad I spent the time, money, and effort to do it. Several moments will always stand out in my mind, such as standing in the rain eating a delicious hot dog from a street vendor, taking a second to just look around me and take in all the activity. There’s also nothing like seeing so many people from so many nations come together in one place, all carrying flags and signs, all smiling and chatting away in their native language. Everyone truly seemed to be enjoying themselves.
While I truly appreciate the hospitality of the Canadians, the “Let’s go CAN-A-DA!” chant has no room in my heart today. It’s just a couple of hours until one of the final Olympic events, the men’s gold medal hockey game, and no one could have scripted it better: it’s USA vs. Canada. So as these 2010 Winter Olympic Games draw to a close, there’s only one cheer I’ll be saying today: U-S-A! U-S-A!