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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Olympic Experience

“Let’s go CAN-A-DA! Let’s go CAN-A-DA!” This simple phrase embodies the spirit of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is not only heard inside Olympic venues, but it also spontaneously erupts on street corners, in restaurants, or in department stores. Indeed, it can be heard just about anywhere there is a television showing live Olympic coverage, which, as you may have guessed by now, is just about everywhere.

The first clue you get that the Olympics are underway after crossing through the Peace Arch just north of Blaine, Washington, are the Canadian car flags. First I saw two attached to the windows of a mini-van, then four boldly flapping from the corners of a pick-up truck. One morning I even saw the red maple leaf waving from an RCMP patrol car parked in front of a Tim Horton’s. Before long you also see flags hanging in the window’s of people’s homes, decals plastered in the windows of businesses, and giant banners you can’t miss draped for several stories over the side of a skyscraper. It is undoubtedly clear that Canadians are 100% behind their athletes and are very proud to be hosting these twenty-first winter Olympic games.

Once you make your way into downtown proper the streets are packed with people heading every which way, many of them decked out in international colors. Of course, the Canadian red-and-white predominates, and during my first visit to the city I estimated about one in every ten people was wearing a Team Canada hockey jersey. On the day when Team Canada was actually playing in an Olympic hockey game, this ratio rose to one of every two people. It wasn’t just jerseys, either: fans carried flags of all sizes, the larger ones draped as capes across their backs. Many children had red maple leaves intricately drawn with face paint on their cheeks. I even saw one young man walking down the street decked out in full goalie gear.

Despite the overwhelming sense of patriotism immediately evident as soon as you step foot into Canada, including their “Own the Podium” campaign and reader boards displaying the daily-updated Canadian medal count, Vancouverites don’t come across as cocky or unwelcoming. In fact, they are just the opposite. Everyone on the street is helpful to visitors, offering assistance and directions to anyone who is clearly an out-of-towner. Those that work the venues, from the security guards to the volunteers, greet you with a smile and are chatty as you wait in line (which you do a lot of at the Olympics). Even the bus drivers, who could easily be excused for being cranky given their overloaded runs, instead wave you aboard, overlooking the fact that you can’t pay for your bus fare since you didn’t know you had to pay in coins.

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.

Viewing the Olympic cauldron was tops on my list, and it was the first place we visited after reaching Vancouver. The flame is, somewhat disappointedly, protected behind a chain-link fence, which obviously hinders photographic opportunities. While there are some holes cut in the fence for picture-taking purposes, most stand in a queue to wait anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to be allowed up to the viewing platform where you can get an unobstructed view of the impressive four-flamed cauldron from above. Thanks to a tip from the concierge at the front desk of my hotel, I found the best photos were actually to be gotten by standing on one of the concrete benches set a ways back from the chain link fence, and allowing for the hills across Burrard Inlet to be the picturesque backdrop.

It was at the cauldron where I also got my celebrity sighting of an Olympic athlete. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know who he was at the time, but he was being followed by the press and many excited fans to I decided to shot first and ask questions later. Turns out it was Jon Mongomery, the Canadian gold medalist in the skeleton.

The main thing to do downtown other than visit the various public displays and party houses is shop. The main souvenir hotspot is known as the Olympic Superstore, a corner of the Hudson Bay Company roped off and dedicated to Olympic keepsakes. You actually have to wait in line to get into the store (like I said, you have to wait in line everywhere), and once there, the selection was actually rather underwhelming. Being well into week two of the Games, they were low on many of the popular items, such as the signature red Olympic mittens that, as predicted, are easily the most sought after souvenir item. The prices at the Superstore also proved to be even more outrageous than expected, so a wider and more affordable variety of official Olympic shirts, sweatshirts, pins, hats, scarves, stuffed animals, posters, post cards, picture frames, shot glasses, keychains (you get the idea) are available at other downtown gift shops, which are also accordingly packed with shoppers. Early in the Olympics protesters actually set up outside the Superstore in opposition to the commercial nature of the Games, but I must admit I’m as guilty as the next visitor of wanting an Olympic keepsake to take home (and so were some of my friends – I received several requests to buy souvenirs for others, too!). As one bright spot, however, my fellow environmentalists will be happy to hear that all official Olympic outlets use no paper or plastic bags, instead providing customers with an appropriately sized reusable shopping bag. Due to this and many other things, these Games are in fact that most sustainable, by far, to date.

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!


The Chatty Housewife said...

You did such an awesome job about this post. I walked around in downtown Vancouver for 8 hours yesterday and I think I might just link to your post when I blog my photos instead of trying to explain it all myself. I had such a great time there in Vancouver, but I felt the same way as you... glad to be out of all the excitement and back to the calm!

The Chatty Housewife said...

Um, excuse my typo or brain-fart or whatever that was. The above comment is supposed to start " awesome job WRITING this post."

My brain-to-fingers ability must be slipping lol.

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

That's an essay and a half Monika - sounds like you had a great time. Shame about the final result.
Like your first pic as it features a Land Rover! (The car with the headlights on).



Monika said...

Chatty Housewife - Thanks for your kind comments! I felt like I wanted to journal about it to remember all the crazy little details.

Dave - I know, it ended up being a lot longer than anticipated! I wanted to capture the whole experience for myself and figured maybe some others would be interested in reading about it, even though there was no wildlife to be seen at the Olympics. But my next post will feature a birding trip at a park just outside of Vancouver! Leave it to you to spot the Land Rover ;)