Olympic gold rush lifted the hearts of even the Ottawa elite

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 3, 2010

At the National Arts Centre's Black and White opera gala Saturday night, the orchestra played and the chorus sang O Canada all the way through in both languages, first in French and then in English. The audience joined in as if they were at a hockey game rather than a black tie event. Never has the national anthem been sung with such fervour by an Ottawa crowd.

Earlier, at the cocktail reception in the NAC's sweeping lobby, a giant screen showed the Canadian men's long-track speed-skating team and snowboarder Jasey-Jay Anderson winning gold medals within about five minutes of each other, to roars from the milling crowd.

At intermission, BlackBerries were turned on to find out whether Kevin Martin had closed out the dashing and dapper Norwegians for the gold in curling. "Did we win?" asked NAC director Peter Herrndorf from his front-row seat in the first balcony. "Gold in curling," announced Conservative MP Ted Menzies as he looked up from his BB.

Gold rush.

All of which was, amazingly, a prelude for the Olympic finale, the men's gold-medal hockey game between Canada and the United States. If you'd written a Hollywood script, that the U.S. would tie the game in the last 30 seconds and Sidney Crosby would score the winning goal for Canada in overtime, no one would have taken the meeting. "Golden goal!" shouted announcer Chris Cuthbert. While not quite an Al Michaels moment - "Do you believe in miracles?" - it was a call for the ages.

Generations from now it will be replayed, like Cournoyer to Henderson in 1972, and Gretzky to Lemieux in 1987. But those were exhibition series. This was for the gold at home in the Olympics. Iginla to Crosby. Only perfect. In all, 27 million Canadians, 80 per cent of the country, saw parts of the hockey game. Twenty-two million saw Sid's winning goal. The other 5 million couldn't bear to watch.

On the broader Olympic canvas, Rod Black had his own moments with his superlative calls of figure skating, ice dancing and short-track skating. He has always had the voice, but he's acquired an impressive knowledge base and matured into the best sportscaster in the country. He also understands that on television, less is more, and allowed the visuals to speak for themselves, as in his silences while Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated to gold in ice dancing. As for Joannie Rochette, there might have been better bronze-medal performances than her short and long programs last week, but none braver.

She was the obvious choice to carry the Maple Leaf at the closing ceremony. Speaking of which, it was a revelation that Canadians had a sense of humour about themselves. So one of the four flames on the Olympic cauldron failed to light at the opening ceremony? Have Catriona Le May Doan do it again at the closing ceremony. There is something to be said about a country that can laugh at itself.

There is also something to be said for the sportsmanship of a country, and its affection for our neighbours to the south, when a Canadian hockey crowd, at the presentation of silver medals to the U.S. women's team, broke into spontaneous chants of "USA, USA!"

There has never been an Olympics where the host country had such spectacular venues and back stories, from Alex Bilodeau's first medal for his brother to Crosby showing up in overtime to close the books on Canada's best gold-medal performance ever. Make that the best gold-medal score by a host country, and with Crosby's goal, the best gold-medal haul by any country in winter Games history.

The obnoxious British press might have called these the worst Games ever after they'd barely begun, but the people in the streets of Vancouver and the village of Whistler were never down on them. Across the country, people camped out in lobbies and malls watching giant screens for two weeks, like so many couch potatoes in those Bell television spots. This would not have been a good time to measure Canadian productivity.

Michael Ignatieff is quite right to say these Olympics were the most important defining moment for Canada since Expo 67. It's the most authentic thing he has said since becoming Liberal leader. Stephen Harper had his own authentic moments, high-fiving and cheering at the events he attended on the closing weekend, none more so than the men's hockey finals. His piano-playing moment was a good one, but there is a difference between staged and authentic.

With glowing hearts, indeed.

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