What price pride?

Jeffrey Simpson

Published on Monday, Mar. 01, 2010 7:13PM EST

Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 02, 2010 3:41AM EST

How do we put a price on pride?

How do you calculate collective memories, or what a French philosopher of nationalism once described as the sense that a people had done great things together and would do more in the future?

Abraham Lincoln once spoke, in another context, of the “mystic chords of memory.” Who can draw up a budget for these? Who can say that, at no time in the past two weeks, they never once shed a tear or wore their heart on a sleeve? We will remember the Canadian winners because they were indeed memorable, not just for their performances but for their character. But we should also remember those who gave everything they had, only to fall short; their character, too, was inspirational.

The whole country wore the men’s hockey gold medal around its neck, but think, too, of Devon Kershaw choking back tears for finishing fifth, just 1.5 seconds from a gold medal in the 50-kilometre cross-country skiing classic. He delivered the best performance of his skiing life. Who could ask for more?

How obvious was the choice of Joannie Rochette to carry the Canadian flag in the closing ceremonies? Some of us don’t cry easily, but why not admit to tears because, although she won bronze in figure skating, she took gold for courage? Who remained indifferent when Alexandre Bilodeau embraced his brother, afflicted with cerebral palsy, after winning the first of Canada’s 14 gold medals?

Olympics are inevitably about medal counts, but they’re also about personal narratives of athletes through which we peer into what we hope is the best of our collective character. So when the time comes to reflect on the lessons of Vancouver, it should be evident that calculations of monetary cost cannot fully capture the impact of elite athletic competition.

Some government programs lend themselves to input-output analyses – this much money spent for this many jobs created, this many operations performed, this many children educated.

The same assessment could be done for elite athletics – this much money spent for this many medals or championships. But that kind of assessment misses the mark: It cannot possibly capture the intangibles of memory and cohesion and example and pride that become part of any country’s sense of itself.

Before the Vancouver Olympics, whenever arguments were advanced that more money was needed to support elite athletic programs, a chorus of opposition arose from those for whom elitism smacked of class or privilege or special advantage. Put the money into playgrounds or after-school athletics or some other such communitarian and, therefore, more worthy activity.

A wealthy country can, if it wishes, do both. But before these Games, it was hard to make a sustained case for doing both, because the communitarians usually won the argument. These Olympics, with their Canadian stories on Canadian soil, might just have situated the debate where it should be: that Canada should and can, indeed, do both.

So when the debate resumes about funding for elite athletes, the answer should be, yes, we can do that for reasons that were just on national display and go beyond the input-output analyses of medal counts. Moreover, not many of the athletes were to the manner born.

What contributed to the athletes’ attractiveness – and this was true of competitors from other countries – was how often their parents had sacrificed, mortgaged, scraped, saved and otherwise altered their lives so their children could have a crack at a dream.

The torch relay that spanned the country brought the Olympics tangibly home to communities everywhere in this vast land. But, ultimately, it fell to Vancouver and Whistler, and to the people and governments there, to make the Games themselves a success.

There were mistakes: too little French at the opening ceremonies, some equipment glitches, a stupid fence around the flame. The Own the Podium gig was so aggressive and offensive that, if another country known for braggadocio (our friends to the south, say) had used it, we Canadians would have been all over the offenders.

Mistakes got fixed. The Games developed a momentum that swept up the entire country. Competitors from abroad enjoyed and admired the experience (elements of the British press excepted).

So thank you, Vancouver Organizing Committee. Thank you, Premier Gordon Campbell. Thank you, volunteers. Thank you, Vancouver and Whistler. You made us all proud, and what price can we put on pride?