Great Expectations – My Favourite Olympic Moments

Beijing, China - 10.10.2021 - The Olympic flag, small in hand, flutters against the backdrop of snow and trees Concept for Winter Olympic Games 2022.

by Mike Brock, special correspondent to The Manitoulin Expositor

CANADA—Madness calmed. Medals hung. New records in old books. Two-and-a-half weeks of the ultimate winter sports spectacle has exited stage left, leaving us with memories, inspiration, disappointments and triumphs. The biggest headlines rightfully reserved for the biggest stars and stories.  Like, for the second Olympics in eight months, Canadian women bringing home the gold in the most watched, most popular team sport!  Nothing beats those (Canada) goose bumps that we all feel at the collective triumphs of the Red and White, but there are always moments beyond the obvious that stand out for me.  Here are a few that I am going to take with me from these Games.

For some, the Olympics are the culmination of a long athletic career.  The pinnacle of a four or eight or even twenty year plan.  Sometimes the Olympics are just the start.  For James “Jack” Crawford, Beijing was a bit of both. These were his second Olympic Games, but the first time he expected to win a medal.  He just had to make it a reality.  Crawford grew up skiing the same escarpment that runs right up to the top of Cup and Saucer.   Moved west to pursue big dreams on big mountains.  Now solidly on the World Cup circuit, he has been nipping at the boot heels of greatness all season long, challenging the best skiers in the world.  He was fourth in the World Championships last year in the Alpine Combined event, and then landed at the foot of the podium again in the Downhill on the first Sunday of these Olympic Games.  Fourth by razor thin 0.07 seconds.  Even in his post-race interviews, though, you could see he knew how close he was.   Yes, his smiles belied the kind of hunger that gets bolder the closer it gets to dinnertime. And, sure enough, four days later, dinner was served.  The Combined Event. One run down the Downhill course, and one run down the Slalom course. Two races to the bottom of the hill, in very different ways. Downhill is like skating straight down a cliff made of ice on 6-foot swords. The bravery (recklessness?) of the downhill gives way to the technique and control of the slalom. Crawford was 2nd after the Downhill run, and had the 7th fastest slalom to take home the Bronze overall. A fine way, in the world’s spotlight, to take his first step into the top realm of Alpine Skiing, right where he belongs.

Speaking of right where they belong, before the Olympics I joked a little bit that each of our curling teams (Men, Women, Mixed) would have no problem getting into the late rounds of their respective tournaments. Perhaps I doth joke too much.  Out of the three teams, only the men—Brad Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker—won a medal.  Bronze.  Does that mean that Canada’s curlers failed in Beijing? No. Or that we need a “Curling Summit”? Not even close. It’s really about reality, and how we set expectations. Big emotion—pain, shock, joy, humour—happens when reality and expectations end up in two very different places.  And in Canada, we have gotten to a point where we expect Canadian curlers to win every tournament.  But, that’s not reality, and it’s precisely because the Canadians have been so good, for so long, that the rest of the world is catching up.  John Morris was beaten by an Australian team in the Mixed event.  How did Australia get so good at curling? JOHN MORRIS WAS THEIR COACH!  The curlers know the expectations our nation has for them, and in fact, they feed off those expectations. What makes those expectations mean so much is that they don’t always become a reality.  You need look no further than the emotion on Brad Gushue’s face after he lost his semi-final to understand that. The full investment of a nation’s hopes and dreams, embraced unafraid by our athletes, is a big part of what makes the Olympics special.  And, we’ll still expect them to win next time.

Karma.  Timing. Doing the right thing. These are other some of the other elements that swirl around the stories of Olympians and their Games.  This speed skating tale, of two American women, is a familiar one, especially to Canadian fans.  In 2014, Canadian Gilmore Junio gave up his spot in the 1000m at the Sochi Olympics so that Canada’s top medal hope, Denny Morrison, could skate.  Morrison, who had fallen at the Canadian Trials, went on to win the silver medal.  This year, it was American veteran Brittany Bowe who gave up her spot in the 500m for teammate Erin Jackson, who had slipped during the US Trials.  Jackson won the gold in the 500.  Bowe won the bronze in the 1000.  In the immortal words of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, I love it when a plan comes together.  

It’s also great when something you never planned for unfolds beautifully right before your eyes.

As a producer, your job is to tell the story.  During the Olympics, though, sometimes it feels more like a responsibility than a job – especially when it comes to sports that only get piped into our homes every four years or so.  Sports like Ski Jumping.  A simple sport where you strap large planks onto your feet, turn off the logical parts of your brain, and try to fly.  For most Canadians, their knowledge of ski jumping includes:  

Eddie The Eagle.  

But, Eddie The Eagle wasn’t Canadian.  He wasn’t particularly good at ski jumping.  Heck, his name isn’t even Eddie, it’s Michael David Edwards! To be fair, if you were tuning into the CBC during the 1980s, maybe the name Horst Bulau rings a bell.  He was the only Canadian ever to make a dent on the World stage, winning 13 World Cups in the early part of the decade. Unfortunately, since Mr. Bulau hung them up three decades ago, Canadians have not flown too close to the sun. In fact, after they closed the Olympic ski jumping facility in Calgary recently, the Canadian Ski Jumping Team had to set up a permanent home in Slovenia.  Not kidding. 

And so it came to be that four Calgarians, all living in Slovenia, arrived in Beijing three weeks ago to represent Canada at the Olympics in Ski Jumping.  Two women and two men. Eight big skis. Zero thought of medals.  The team knew that it would take strong, clean jumps from all four just to qualify for the final eight in the Mixed Team event. Lo and behold, though, with a little bit of luck in the form of disqualifications (favourites Germany and Japan) Canada was not only in the final, but they were in the hunt for a medal.  All of a sudden, this was David and Goliath kind of stuff. Canada going shoulder to shoulder with traditional powerhouses like Norway, Austria, Slovenia…and doing it in the most Canadian way.  Every Canadian athlete—Alexandria Loutitt, Matthew Soukup, Abigail Strate and Mackenzie Boyd-Clowes—simply did their job.  Individually sufficient, collectively brilliant.  Completely Canadian. They finished in the Bronze medal position.  If the Women’s hockey team had won the Bronze Medal, there would be a national referendum, but for a team that had to move to Eastern Europe just to practice their sport, a medal that will mean multitudes to the future of this sport in Canada. There are kids in Canada who were able to see Canadian athletes—men and women—win an Olympic medal in Ski Jumping.  It was a great Canadian Olympic moment, and the distance between expectations and reality was impossible to imagine.

Some final quick notes on moments that I will take away from these Games:

After five decades of calling the most famous races in our nation’s sporting history, Steve Armitage hung up his microphone,  thankful that his last event included the call of a medal for Ivanie Blondin on the speed skating oval.

There was a confidence surrounding Canada’s Women’s Hockey team at these games.  They won, reversing the final result from four years ago against the Americans, but they did it with a comfort level that was really engaging.  Line dancing as a team warmup, lots of smiles, and an overall great example for the young hockey players – boys and girls – on how to be a winning team on and off the ice.  Loved it.

There are many different ways to measure success, sure, but there probably isn’t a much better way to spend your twenties and thirties than travelling the world and winning Olympic medals.  Charles Hamelin did exactly that.  And, along with his teammates in the 3K Short Track Relay, added one more Gold to that haul.  With his 6th Olympic medal (in his 5th Games) Hamelin tied Andre DeGrasse for the most Olympic medals by a Canadian male.

Canadian Speed Skater Laurent Dubreuil is the reigning World Champion in the 500m, but he failed to medal in that event in Beijing.  When the 1000m came around, he was paired with the reigning World Champion in that event Kai Verbij, from the Netherlands.  In the crossover on the second lap, the skaters ended up too close.  Verbij, slightly behind, made the decision to ease up, giving right of way to the Canadian, allowing Dubreuil to capture the silver medal.  Athletic altruism at its finest.

In 2018, Max Parrot won the Snowboard Slopestyle Silver Medal in Pyeongchang.  In 2019, Max Parrot was diagnosed with cancer.  In 2020, Max Parrot beat cancer and won gold at the X Games.  In 2022, Max Parrot won the Snowboard Slopestyle Gold Medal.  Cancer sucks.  Winning an Olympic Gold Medal after beating cancer does not suck.

The Olympics make their next stop in Paris – Summer of 2024.  The next Winter Games are in Italy in 2026.  Who will come back for another kick at the podium?  Who will ride off into the sunset?  Who will come out of the nowhere to shine on the world stage? Who will do the best job in the next four years of creating reality out of their expectations?  Stay tuned, and whatever the answer, I hope that the Olympic spirit stays alive in your house.