VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The long national nightmare ended at precisely 6:18 p.m. PDT on a soothing Sunday when a scoreboard at the bottom of Cypress Mountain flashed the final standings. Canada exhaled. The man who brought such relief is preternaturally upbeat fellow named AlexandreBilodeau, a moguls skier who bumped his way down a 250-meter course and into the sporting history of his country.
There had been 249 previous gold medals awarded in the two Olympics staged in Canada -- the 1976 Games on Montreal and the 1988 winter Olympics in Calgary -- and not once had one gone to the host nation. Rest assured this was more bumbling than old-fashioned Canadian politesse in the days before Canada became a winter sports power but no matter the rationalization, the home goose egg was tough to swallow -- cooked or raw.
After winning seven golds in Turin, Canadian victories at home were, as moguls skier JenniferHeil kept saying, "an inevitability." But when Heil, the 2006 Olympic champion, finished second to HannahKearney of the United States on Saturday, the inevitable was taking a little long to suit some tastes.
The country might indeed be strong and free, as it claims in its anthem, but it also is restive and insecure. (Other than insecurity, what else explains the so-called "slam poet" at the opening ceremonies, who reminded Canadians how polite and special they are in an odd ramble that faintly echoed an old Molson "I am Canadian" beer ad?) When Heil didn't win, a columnist in the Vancouver Province who took the mood of the city -- orally, we might add -- basically reassured his readers that all would be well. Bilodeau, a man who is at ease in his own skin, as French speakers like to say, proved the typist correct within 24 hours.
The level of expectations for Canadian results had been ratcheted in the past five years by a $110 million program for athlete funding that carries the audacious, off-putting name of Own the Podium. The problem is when you attach a label like that to a program that essentially gives the sweaty ambassadors of a nation the kind of proper support that might pay off in global recognition, you take the risk that people might hold you to it literally.
Like the seasons, there is a natural rhythm to almost every country's Olympics. All anyone needs is a quick glance at the schedule to figure it out. Indeed other than the moguls, Vancouver 2010 is essentially back-loaded in the sports Canada is likely to dominate. Now, a smart Canadian Olympic Committee executive like ChrisRudge could go public and politely point this out, but this business of prognostication is tricky. If the COC were to trumpet the obvious, it would, at least by inference, diminish athletes who are unlikely to walk away with a medal dangling. But by not clearing the throat and managing expectations, it would just be ramping up the anxiety level among those quadrennial patriots among the 33 million Canadians who want to sunbathe in the toasty glow of reflected glory.
This is why Bilodeau's victory over DaleBegg-Smith, the 2006 champion who hails from Vancouver but competes for Australia -- long story -- on Day 2 of competition so was important to Canada. While it scratched the long-suffering itch for a home win -- "I belong to history," Bilodeau acknowledged in a post-race press conference -- on a more immediate level it allowed a nation of worriers to relax and, possibly, provided a nudge in the right direction to his Olympic teammates. As Bilodeau said, "The party is just starting for Canada."
He is a worthy recipient of the notoriety that he has acquired. In some ways, like Heil, a training partner whom he describes as his big sister, he seems like a practically perfect Canadian. He is bilingual. He is gracious, an area in which he might consider lending his expertise to the expat, Begg-Smith, who, during the flower ceremony, looked like someone had slashed his tires. Yes, we know the TomGlavine lookalike is laconic by nature, but once in a while you just have to fake it, you know?) Bilodeau, who was inspired to start doing bumps and big air when as an eight-year-old he watched Jean-Luc Brassard win the moguls gold at Lillehammer 1994, suggested his victory might help inspire another generation. Bilodeau knows about all about inspiration. His older brother, Frédéric, is his. The 29-year-old has cerebral palsy. "Growing up with a brother who is handicapped" Bilodeau said, "I learned so much from those people." Seeing his brother live his life with a smile on his face -- and there was no bigger grin in the Cypress Mountain stands than on Frédéric -- is a reminder to Alex to never give up and never complain. And that is worth remembering no matter when (or even if) the gold medals come in a country that has been blessed with athletes who have the of Bilodeau and Heil, whose grace in defeat was the kind of gold medal performance the IOC doesn't recognize. Hey, Canada -- relax.
Any nation can buy medals, but it can't buy class.