TORONTO (Reuters) - The first anniversary celebrations of the Vancouver Olympics will commence Saturday under the same dark cloud that hung over the opening of the Winter Games a year ago.
The heart-breaking death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili hours before the Opening ceremony was back in the news this week, providing an eerie and somber reminder of the 2010 Games.
As Canadians prepare to once again bask in the glow of their golden Games, Kumaritashvili’s death continues to haunt the Olympic hosts after revelations that Vancouver organizers had perhaps been aware the track that claimed the luger’s life was potentially dangerous.
But like the Vancouver Olympics themselves the party will go on this weekend as Canada relives 17 days that redefined a national identity.
For a generation of Canadians, whose sense of country had flowed from patriotic beer commercials, the Vancouver Games provided them with their cultural touchstone.
“For this generation the Vancouver Olympics gave them something tangible, their moment,” said Jenny Ellison, a professor of Canadian studies at Trent University told Reuters. “Until then, outside of beer commercials they didn’t have that one tangible moment to hold on to.
“My students found the Olympics really tangible. We talk about identity as common set of symbols so that people in different parts of Canada are sharing the same experience.
“The Olympics confirmed to them what we have been claiming to them all along.”
A Winter Games that began with tragedy had appeared headed toward certain disaster as snow melted away on Cypress Mountain and the world chuckled at embarrassing glitches during the opening ceremonies.
Twice before Canada had hosted Olympics, the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, and failed to win a gold medal.
In a bit of un-Canadian bravado, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) assured this time would be different, saying Canada would “Own the Podium” setting an ambitious target of winning more medals than any nation.
But as the first days passed without a Canadian on the top of the podium anxiety climbed until Alexandre Bilodeau ended the drought on Cypress Mountain by striking gold in the moguls.
The victory lit the fuse on a national celebration, the Games closing with Canada scooping a record 14 gold medals, the most ever by any country at a Winter Olympics.
As the medal tally grew so did an outpouring of patriotism, a shared collective experience that galvanized a nation often divided by politics and language.
“Having the Games at home and the result we had changed this country,” Marcel Aubut, head of the COC told Reuters. “I am 63 and I never saw anything like that before.
“This country, for the first time, had a reason for everybody — English, French to get behind one thing, behind the athletes, behind a Games at home.
“That will not survive just a year. It will go on forever.”
For Canadians who were in Vancouver or watched on television, their Olympic memories remain fresh and vivid, providing additional evidence that something special, something rare and mostly unexpected, took place a year ago.
Each night they filled the streets of downtown Vancouver to cheer and cry. A scene repeated in cities across the country as Canadians waved the Maple Leaf flag and roared with pride.
“The patriotism and pride has always been there, this country was simply waiting for an opportunity to show it,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“Vancouver 2010 has provided that opportunity.”
Those 17 days resulted in a seismic shift in the national psyche, the way Canadians view themselves, and how they wanted the world to see them.
That image was reflected in a bearded and beaming Jon Montgomery as he paraded through a throng of well-wishers at the Whistler Village, chugging from a pitcher of beer after winning a gold medal in the skeleton.
Canada basked in the courage of figure skater Joannie Rochette, who competed despite her mother’s fatal heart attack just two days earlier, bravely working through her tears to win bronze along with the hearts of an entire country.
But for a hockey-obsessed nation there was one medal that mattered more than any other.
And when Sidney Crosby scored in overtime to give Canada a 3-2 win over the United States in a heart-stopping Olympic men’s ice hockey final, Mardi Gras-type revelry erupted across the country.
Despite the uncharacteristic release of emotion, at its core, a year on, Canada has remained very much the same as it was prior to the Olympic gold rush, introspective, painfully polite and a touch insecure.
Perhaps no longer quite as humble or guilt-ridden about loudly cheering their own and celebrating their success, the Games did not give Canada an identity as much as refined it.
“It reaffirms what we think we are about, our friendliness, our ability to play hockey our multiculturalism,” said Ellison.
“It reaffirmed all the symbols we believe are Canadian. It carries forward our sense of what it means to be Canadian rather than transforming it.”
Editing by Steve Ginsburg