January 06, 2010

Erin gives Olympic torch an enthusiastic welcome

As published in The Erin Advocate

There are many good reasons to be cynical about the Olympic Games, the great spectacle that has us in its grip once again.

Despite the best efforts of TV networks to play up the positive, the Games have a reputation problem. There is a long tradition of corruption in the bidding process and the construction of facilities. So while there are certainly many honest people and organizations involved in the Games, there is a perpetual scent of scandal.

Then there are the controversies over performance-enhancing drugs and the opportunity to cheat. Again, not serious enough to taint all the honest athletes or destroy the Games, but still a serious, on-going problem.

The extreme commercialization of the event was perhaps in reaction to the financial disaster of the 1976 Games in Montreal. It took until 2006 to pay off the $1.5 billion debt. Now the Games make money, but we pay the price by enduring the onslaught of marketing from Coke, McDonald's and so many corporate sponsors. It makes the whole thing seem tacky.

No room here to go into the loss of the amateur ideal in favour of professionalism, with athletes treated as full-time PR agents by some countries. No one seems to be overly concerned about excessive nationalism distorting the ideals of human competition, as nations spend obscene portions of their gross national product to buy some elusive bragging rights on the world stage.

Most people are annoyed when the Olympics become an occasion for political protest, whether it be on apartheid, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (how times have changed) or the current controversies about the Olympic torch crossing Native land in Ontario and the plight of homeless people in Vancouver. The public does not respond well to chants like, "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land."

Whether the protests are valid or not, people are saturated. They have little interest in politics, especially when it interferes with something that is supposed to be entertaining. Despite attempts at reform, the International Olympic Committee is far from an accountable, democratic organization.

There's not much anyone can do, unless they want to protest in the streets, and be portrayed as a wingnut.

I find the politics fascinating, but there comes a time to set it all aside. Cynicism is a crutch I have been trying to do without.

So when the Olympic torch blazed its way through Erin last week, I was out on the street with my camera. I wore the bright red Olympic hoodie I got for Christmas, with the prominent label from the "Official Outfitters".

There were hundreds of people on the route and at Centre 2000, at 9 a.m. on the holiday Monday, and they were happy. The torchbearers were generous with their time, allowing many people to be photographed holding a torch.

I took a picture for The Advocate of the flame being passed from one torch to another. When I was touching it up on my computer, I zoomed in on a torch and was surprised at the slogan etched below the flame, cleverly clipped from the national anthem: "With Glowing Hearts".

The feeling was that Erin was lucky to have the torch pass through the community. Along the route, little kids had an excited gleam in their eyes, there were older folks waving Canadian flags, and though it was all over in less than an hour, it became an event to be remembered.

The torch brought people together and made them feel connected to other Canadians and the whole world, and there is nothing wrong with that. When you are feeling lucky, then of course, you are.