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Feb. 25 2010 - 10:14 am | 348 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The Olympics: the Alcohol of the National Soul

It is the late, great Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,  whom the Winter Olympics Games in Vancouver keep reminding me of.

“Every country is like a particular type of person. America is like a belligerent, adolescent boy, Canada is like an intelligent, 35 year old woman,” he wrote in The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumously published collection of Adams’ works.

And I think he’s right. Certainly, as an intelligent, 35+ year-old American woman, I wish the US would do more to emulate Canadian healthcare, gay marriage rights, and responsible foreign policy, with an emphasis on peacekeeping.

But then again, as someone who worked as a stringer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for five and half years, with a Canadian ex in my past, and a healthy handful of Canadian friends… the temptation to poke fun is just too much to resist.

The thing is – it’s just so damn easy.  Canadians suffer an identity crisis best summed up by the question: What does it mean to be Canadian, if it means something more than simply not being American? Throw that one out there at a Canadian-heavy dinner party, I dare you – but make sure you’re sitting near the door.

That’s not because Canadians are violent – far from it. It’s because the discussion will carry on for hours. The word I hear most about Canadians by Canadians is that they are always “reasonable.” My Canadian ex’s favorite joke?  How do you get 25 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Hey – get out of the pool.”

And I’m not the only one to ponder the state of the Canadian soul at the time of the Olympics. Google “Canada” and “identity crisis” and you get close to a million hits – including op-eds by some Canadians who think the Olympics represent time to get over it.

I’ve concluded that if America is like a belligerent, adolescent boy and Canada is like an intelligent, 35 year old woman –  then the Olympics are like alcohol.

The Olympics are the booze that exacerbate all those latent feelings of hostility, inadequacy, beer muscles and beer goggles, percolating right beneath the surface of your otherwise well-composed self.

You wanna talk belligerence? The US wins a hockey game (sorry, Canada) and suddenly it’s a re-make of “Miracle on Ice!”  This conveniently ignores the fact that a) Jimmy Carter had pulled the US out of the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan –  so Lake Placid was a grudge match and the only Olympics we had; b) the Cold War is over; c) as Stephen Colbert points out, al-Qaeda doesn’t field a team; and d) our opponent this time around was a centuries-old ally, at whom we’ve never pointed a nuke.  In fact, we find them useful for generic drugs.

And think about Beijing.

I happened to see some New York stand-up shortly after the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.  A guy  – who never in a million years would have ever cared about the sport of swimming — was thumping his chest about American Michael Phelps.  Why did you lose, World? ‘Cause you didn’t put a fucking dolphin on your team! America, fuck yeah.

Now consider China itself! That was a serious case of beer muscles! After a few incidents in which the Olympic torch relay was interrupted by protesters, the Chinese diaspora turned out by the thousands to protect the torch at relay pit-stops around the world. They opened the games on 8-8-08,  the most auspicious day of the decade, and put on an extraordinarily dazzling display of strutting national pride at the opening and closing ceremonies to ensure  – in the minds of the people – global hegemony.

The closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, by contrast, reveled in Australian kitsch -  and featured Kylie Minogue riding a giant flip-flop, while singing Abba.

Back in Vancouver, meanwhile, the Canadian Olympic Committee launched a program called “Own the Podium” to help Canadians win Olympic medals.  A funding initiative for the training of athletes, it’s also being described as a national exercise in building self-esteem – so that Canadian athletes and their supporters feel worthy of competition at an Olympic level. A Canadian friend of mine (and others) describe it as simply “embarrassing.”

Canada, oh Canada! With such self-defeating flaws, and some shots of the Olympics under your belt, that intelligent 35 year-old woman is suddenly Bridget Jones, drunk on cheap chardonnay and weeping about dying alone and being eaten by a German Shepherd.

So pick yourself up, Canada – you already know you’re better than that. It’s those seeds of self-doubt that the rest of the world likes to play on.  We’ll stop when you stop.

I know this will do nothing to make me popular in certain quarters – another American commenting on the Canadian national soul. But there – I said it. Let the hate mail – or excuse me, the reasonable mail – begin.


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  1. collapse expand


    Invest in Canada now if you’re looking for a good place to put your money.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance journalist and writer who has recently returned to the US after 17 years living overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia.

    In 1992, I went to Cambodia – then at the height of the UNTAC peacekeeping mission - to cut my teeth on journalism.

    ….I was in Hong Kong, for the 1997 Handover to Chinese rule; and then it was off to

    …..Indonesia - for the fall of President Suharto in 1998, through the the reformasi movement; the East Timor conflict, its independence ballot and peacekeeping mission; the fallout from September 11th in “the world’s most populous Muslim nation” and the Bali bomb, and myriad points in-between during a five and a half year span;

    …. and onwards to India, where I was Voice of America radio/television correspondent for South Asia between 2003 and 2006, which included rotations in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with my “patch” of India, including Kashmir; Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

    I’ve freelanced my way in and out of Bosnia, Burma, Egypt, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand. I’ve also filed out of Vietnam and Malaysia.

    My name is Mary Patricia Nunan, and I vastly prefer “MP.” If you’ve heard me on the radio or seen me on tv – NPR, VOA, CBC, BBC or others -- it would have been as “Patricia Nunan.” I’ve never had much use for the “Mary.”

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