True North Strong and Free

Feb 13, 2010   //   by Alida   //   Creative Discontent, Culture, Reviews  //  No Comments

Yesterday was a good day to be a Canadian, but beyond that, it was a good day to be a Canadian artist. The level of artistry, skill, technical ability, and talent that went into the Opening Ceremony last night was amazing, and it made me proud to be a part of a community of artists that has the skill to pull that off. Beyond that, it was a great day for Calgary artists. The composer/music director, Dave Pierce; the assistant music director, Donovan Seidle; and the choreographer, Jean Grand-Maître, are all Calgary-based artists with huge international successes.

However, aside from the dampening of the day for the most obvious reason (and my heart just aches for the Georgian team and the Kumaritashvili family), there’s something that has been nagging at me for weeks. The more I hear of the controversy and ill-will surrounding the Games in Vancouver, the sadder it makes me. The Olympics in Calgary were such a great experience for the city — culturally, they put Calgary on the world stage, and the arts and culture (not to mention both amateur and professional sports) have flourished so much in the last 22 years due to the foundation laid by the Games — they seemed to draw the city together, not tear it apart.

I don’t know if those three Canadian artists would be where they are if it weren’t for the ’88 Olympics. My thoughts on the impact of the ’88 Games on the arts today are mostly speculative and I don’t know what kind of research to track that exists (if there is any). However, Dave Pierce, the composer, is collaborating with Twyla Tharpe on the Broadway premiere of the Frank Sinatra-based musical, Come Fly With Me, which opens in March. Jean Grand-Maître was approached by Elton John to commission an entirely new ballet based on his work. I mean, these aren’t just some Robin Sparkles equivalents, famous in Canada only; these are huge, world-class stars collaborating with (and specifically choosing) Calgarians, and I really don’t know if Calgary would have been on anyone’s radar for them had it not been for the momentum built by the ’88 Games.

I think that the foundation of global presence laid in ’88 was built on by the economic freedom of the oil boom, and that arts, culture, and sport have all taken advantage of the amazing opportunity that was given to Calgary 22 years ago and multiplied by the good fortune of the oil and gas industry in the past decade.

Granted, in ’88 I was only in kindergarten, so while I have first-hand memories of the Games, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the stories behind them, but even in my understanding of the city since then, I don’t think that there were nearly the politics associated with the games as there are in Vancouver. (And a quick Googling confirms that there was no major political controversy. The biggest controversy had to do with the Chinook winds and whether they would impact the conditions of venues. I also can’t find record of any major protests. There were smaller ones along the torch relay route, but nothing of the scale seen in Vancouver.)

My Googling also tells me that the Calgary games were the first winter games to actually make a profit (although a later audit disputed the actual numbers) which obviously makes a difference in the way the Games are perceived and what they can do for the city. Regardless of the exact profit or debt numbers, though, an endowment fund was created which now sustains Canada Olympic Park and other training facilities, created the National Sport School, and built up amateur sports. I’ve even seen articles stating that if it weren’t for the Calgary Olympics and the facilities and funds that came out of it, Canada would not be as major a player in winter sports as we are now.

So it saddens me that Vancouver doesn’t get that same experience. That the Olympics don’t seem to be the point of pride that they should be for a host city. That there won’t be the same legacy of growth, forward motion, and long-term benefit. That Calgary’s Games were marked by volunteerism and community, while Vancouver’s seem to be marked by protest and controversy. It doesn’t seem fair that two Olympic Games, separated by only 1000 km and 22 years, are also separated by such a dichotomy of experience and attitude. I think that part of the reason I love the Olympics so much is that the first ones that I remember (in ’84, I was far too young) were in my hometown, and I got to experience them live. I love the fact that those memories aren’t really all that tarnished as I learn more about the impact and legacy of those Games from an adult perspective, but I feel for the kids who will be caught up in the magic this year — but may learn, at some point down the road, how divisive that magic was.

However, let’s end this on a lighter note. A few (very few) highlights from last night, in no particular order:

  • The look on Clara Hughes’ face as she walked into the stadium carrying the Canadian flag. The look of humbled awe, incredulity, amazement, joy, and honor on her face encapsulated the whole thing for me. On a human level, that’s still my favorite image of the night.
  • My favorite of the dance pieces was “Who Has Seen the Wind”. I think. I can’t quite decide, because they were each amazing in unique ways. The newscasters described that one as capturing the sense of “boundless infinity” (or something like that — I so wish I could remember the exact phrase!), and it really did. There was something about it that caught the poetic endlessness. I also really, really love the way they incorporated classic Canadian literature into the ceremony. That was just gorgeous.
  • I really loved the symbolism of the handover from the Olympic flag (famous Canadians, not necessarily athletes, who were likely most recognizable 25-40 years ago [with the exception of Julie Payette]) to the Olympic torch (recognizable Canadian athletes who have been at the top of their game in the past 10-15 years) to the current Olympic athletes, who are charged with the responsibility to keep that legacy going today. Nicely subtle generational commentary.
  • When the cauldron is lit, the flames look like a maple leaf!
  • Flaming tap shoes. Need I say more?
  • Bermuda’s outfits. Again, need I say more?
  • The Calgary Tower will be lit during the Olympics.

Happy Olympics, everyone!

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