February 24, 2006

Live From the 'Stealth' Games

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The Winter Olympics are quirky – at best.

Whereas the Summer Olympics have track, swimming and basketball, the Winter Games feature luge, curling and ice dancing. Host cities in the summer are Los Angeles, Paris and Moscow. For the Winter Games, your hot spots are Sapporo, Lillehammer and Garmisch.

This year you go to Torino, a town in the Italian Alps where Nietzsche went mad from syphilis in 1889. Perhaps aware of this history, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi announced he was giving up sex and was refusing to come to Torino for the opening ceremonies.

Berlusconi’s indifference mirrored that of the soccer-obsessed Italian citizens. As one local reporter put it, Berlusconi “doesn’t even know what snow is.”

The buzz was so silent it became the “stealth” Olympics for its lack of appeal. NBC ratings numbers showed the Games losing to “American Idol” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” For people all over the world, the excitement of the Olympics was gone.

In reality, right now Torino is one of the most magical places on Earth.

When we arrived in Torino last Sunday, we were in the grips of a blinding snowstorm. Cars and buses were careening on frozen bridges over the River Po and great monuments were mere shadows in the white-out. Even colossal structures like the Royal Palace and Gran Madre di Dio could be seen only from a few feet away.

Despite this shroud, as it were, the city was alive with revelry. Nearby the medal stand, a woman sang Italian opera to an enormous crowd. Spectators wearing the colors of their countries blended together in the streets like an impressionist masterpiece. Athletes – including a lucky few with luminous new medals – stood proudly in bars and restaurants.

We saw history at work. A Russian man challenged an American to a vodka-drinking contest. When the Russian won, he declared he had “set the record straight” from 1980.

When the French beat the Norwegians in the biathlon, a BBC man said it was the “perfect revenge” – for the 9th century Viking raids in Gaul.

Then there were the Canadians – throngs of hockey lovers loudly supporting their national team. That night, the Canadian men’s hockey team would play against undefeated Finland.

It had been a long time since Canada outscored its opponents, 110-3, in the 1924 Games at Chamonix. At Torino, the Canadians had already lost to Switzerland – a civic humiliation, to put it mildly. To lose again – and to Finland – would be a national nightmare.

Outside the arena, the blizzard continued. A group of Canadian fans chucked snowballs at anyone wearing a Finland jersey. A pair of crazed Swedes screamed something about Peter Forsberg being the Messiah while being chased by Italian ticket officials. The scent of panini and Budweiser mixed in the air.

Despite the importance of their quest, the Canadian fans inside the rink did not seem united. People argued about a Quebec-only Olympic team. Others grumbled over the Gretzky gambling fiasco. The mood was sour. Someone wearing a Todd Bertuzzi jersey was almost physically assaulted – by Canadians.

The discord carried over onto the ice. Premier NHL stars – Joe Sakic, Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash – looked distracted and apathetic. Rob Blake looked weighed down by his huge NHL salary as the speedy Finns opened a quick two-goal lead.

Much like the 1980 Lake Placid crowd chanting “USA,” hundreds of Finnish fans in unison bellowed “Suomi! Suomi!” Compared to the Canadians, it was deafening.

The Finns won, 2-0. They felt like they had the biggest win in Torino since Hannibal had come through in 218 B.C. Canada was devastated.

The Canadians have since been escorted out of Torino in the greatest national embarrassment since the burning of York in 1813. Canada’s defeat was more mortifying than anything “American Idol” could ever provide. If only Simon Cowell were there to see it.

As we left the arena, the snowfall had begun to subside. Norwegians wearing otter pelts drank beers and sang loudly in the streets. The Olympic torch burned in the distance, illuminating an ancient Roman monument. The enduring flame shined as a testament to the joy, the glory and, yes, the magic of the Olympics.

But you can bet there was no joy in Canada that evening.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Writer. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Friday this semester.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen