VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- There's a reason we come, despite the nonsense. There's a reason we come to the Olympics still, every two years now, despite the fact that sometimes you get
But the reason rises most clearly, every time, at the end.
It rises during the closing ceremony, at the moment when stagecraft fades and the simplest of human acts begins. The athletes walk in.
That's it: They walk into some stadium, as they did again Sunday evening at Vancouver's B.C. Place to end the 2010 Winter Games, and the clearest picture of what the Olympics
It happened again Sunday. There the athletes were, smaller and more real suddenly, snapping pictures like tourists, waving to cameras -- "Hi, Mom!" -- milling aimlessly, mashed together in the most accomplished mosh pit in history. Canadians, Americans, Russians, Finns: all the stiffness, posing, pre-competition jitters was gone, dissolved in a moment of pure fun. There's nothing else like it in sports.
We didn't get that in Beijing. Organizers at the 2008 Summer Games ran a minutely-controlled and choreographed farewell that looked great on TV, but killed any hint of spontaneity; the athletes were all but herded into pens. But Canada is no China; it's the land of half the world's great comedians. When a faux-repairman, giant screwdriver on his belt, kicked off Sunday's festivities by "fixing" the same arm of the cauldron that so infamously failed to rise at the opening ceremony, allowing speedskating legend
Then again, Canada could afford such looseness. The same Olympics that had begun with disaster, with the death of a 21-year old Georgian luger on the morning of the opening ceremony, and spent its early days focused on weather problems, a massive ticket cancellation, and the seeming underperformance of Canada's Olympians, had ended in triumph.
A late surge by Canadian speedskaters and curlers pushed the host nation to a best-ever medals showing at a Winter Olympics, and the ice hockey team's rapture-inducing, overtime victory over the U.S. Sunday pushed Canada to its 14th gold medal, the most ever won by any country at a Winter Games. Coming in, Canada had spent $110 million on athlete support and vowed to "Own the Podium" by winning the overall medal count. It didn't come close. But after Kid Canada,
"Alexandre," VANOC Chief
Furlong's delivery may have been stilted, but the response was not. The crowd of 60,600 rose to its feet, unscripted, and stopped his closing speech cold for a good minute, cheering the biggest win in Canadian hockey history. Such chesty flagwaving was seen across Vancouver and Canada throughout these games, but hit new levels in the aftermath of the hockey win -- horns beeping, men hugging, a once-shy country openly reveling in its success.
"That quiet, humble national pride we were sometimes reluctant to acknowledge seemed to take to the streets as the most beautiful kind of patriotism broke out all across our country," Furlong said. "So many new and dazzling applications for the Maple Leaf."
But other flags had their moments in Vancouver, too. Norway, a country of just 4.7 million, finished fourth in the medal count with 23, and produced the most accomplished male athlete in cross-country skier
Indeed, though the first official response to the death of
"These were," declared a visibly relieved IOC president,
That should be the case for the Summer Games in London in two years, but 2014 is already taking on curious dimensions. Like the Chinese did with the Summer Games,
Not only did Ovechkin fail to produce during Russia's ghastly 7-3 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals, but he also shelved his usually gregarious personality in Vancouver and proved a gloomy, surly presence, snubbing the media and
Canada -- its people, its athletes, its lovely host city -- was hardly that the last two weeks. The country made itself known. Here's betting that, come 2014, it will be missed.