Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I begin this post with some misgivings. In writing it, I stand to alienate some, and potentially paint myself as short-sighted, unpatriotic, and even curmudgeonly. What I can’t quite shake is the sense that it needs to be said, even if many (perhaps even my mom) think less of me.

“We all squeezed the stick…”

I watched the game winning goal on Sunday. Those who know me may be somewhat awed by that statement. Yes… me… the person who would rather give birth to a watermelon through his anus than have to endure talk of “overtime,” “shoot outs,” and “Hockey Night in Canada,” watched the final few moments of the gold medal Olympic hockey game.

And I was happy for those guys—really, I was. In fact, I was sort of happy for all Canadians. As we loaded the kids into the van and left @shelkie’s house, we witnessed a level of enthusiasm I’ve rarely seen in my country. People shouting with joy, cars adorned with Canadiana, flags waving, horns honking, and general good feelings all around.

It also made me sort of sad.

Upon arriving at home, we tuned in to the closing ceremonies. While I packed for today’s trip, I peeked in and watched what appeared to be a wonderful show. In spite of the overly sentimental spirit and “corn”-factor, I’m sure the folks who were there had the time of their lives.

And still, I felt sort of sad.

I now sit at YVR (Vancouver’s airport), en route to talk in Montreal, where I’m surrounded by folks who were at the heart of the action. They’re returning home weary looking, but happy. At security checks I watch them open bags filled with mementos and Olympic themed merchandise. They seem elated—like they’ve experienced something life altering. I’ve twice walked past a woman who works for YVR. Each time I hear someone asking her the same question (seemingly she attended the closing ceremonies), “How was it?” Her eyes open wide, and it’s written all over her face. She was profoundly moved by the event.

So, why do I feel like this?

As I wait for my flight to depart, I’m left with a sensation, and I’m perplexed by it. I feel a strange sort of lump in my throat, and the hunch that I’ve missed out on something. It’s more than that, though, it’s a feeling I’ve carried for so long: of being a perpetual outsider. I’m one who can look in and observe, but can never quite tap these experiences in the way that my neighbors appear to be able to.

This isn’t a false sense of superiority: an “I’m so much smarter than you for not getting sucked into all of this.” No, it’s really a strange and somewhat depressing admission that I’ve never really “gotten” so many of the feelings that others have, and in many ways I feel lesser for this. It looks like folks are having an awfully good time, and I just can’t get to the same place.

Sure, I felt some twinges of excitement—kind of like finding that a celebrity is sitting at the table next to yours. A fleeting sort of, “isn’t that interesting” that quickly passes. For example, when we heard the cheering outside as the Olympic flame passed by.

Knowing that my wife and one of my boys had already seen it, I was compelled to take a look for myself. As we walked that block and a half from our office, the spirit in the air was tenable. Moments later, however, it was gone. The police shouting at onlookers to step back, as corporate floats moved past, adorned with cheerleaders of sorts banging drums, asking us to get “pumped” about the torch, which in turn seemed rather inconsequential—almost like a device fashioned specifically to wrap corporate sponsorship around.

Over the upcoming days, I did try to take in little bits as I could. I made my way to the cauldron, but was daunted by the fences and security, which seemed almost discouraging. My family and I spent the opening weekend walking around town taking in the general energy and excitement, which we found quite fun—perhaps the part of the games we enjoyed most. We even turned on our “television,” streaming some of the Olympics through the CTV website.

What I keep seeing

For all of the things that I could almost find engaging, I found myself slowed by a number of actualities that I couldn’t quite move past. The greatest of which, is the inescapable corporate wrapper that seems to adorn so many of our experiences—particularly ones like this.

There seems to be not an inch of Olympic Vancouver that hasn’t been marked by a corporate brand. Now, this is an inevitable reality of the landscape we all contribute to. We’ve fashioned a world in which brands are king, as proven through our loyalty to them over almost anything else. We’re “Mac-people,” “Coke drinkers,” and “Ford lovers,” and we don’t feel strange saying these things. If someone said they were “anti-cruelty,” “devoutly vegan,” or “logo-free,” we’d likely look at them as though they were some kind of left-wing weirdoes. Be that as it may, corporate brands understand the importance of these perceptions, and as a result, they invest heavily to pretty-much “own” events like these.

Where this seemed most overwhelming was in the commercials that aired during the games. In them, we didn’t just see a clever spot, or a mention of a brand and the features it afforded. No, what we see is the amplification of human experience. Visa doesn’t tell us its cards are more widely accepted; it crafts the mantra “go world.” Nike doesn’t eschew the strengths of its gear; it explains that we can overcome destiny and “force fate.” CTV doesn’t explain that it will give us the best coverage; it asks us to “believe.”

If such messages were limited to the odd advertisement, one might come to a different conclusion. In consideration of the saturation of these aspirational sentiments, one can only feel that emotion itself has been co-opted by the corporate world. Amplified to these blaring levels, this manufactured emotion leaves us no longer just fans of sport and human achievement. We’re sold a bill of goods of dubious value. We’re the benefactors of second-hand emotions crafted in order to deny brutal realities and make us ever more obedient consumers.

When we find ourselves at war, our leaders don’t ask us to reflect upon our role in the world (and why we face such ill-will); they ask us to spend more money to keep the economy active. When we face the potential end of species (or vast diminishment of), we don’t take drastic actions to change; we tell ourselves we can buy “greener” stuff. And even here, where we are encouraged to revel in the “human spirit” we’re far more inclined to buy some overpriced nationalistic merchandise than we are to ask about our less fortunate neighbours, and how we might tangibly exhibit such sentiments.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to allow me a brief non-sequitur here: Don’t you just love the perverse irony that McDonalds and Coke are sponsors of the Olympics? (Seems a little like Tiger Woods campaigning for celibacy, doesn’t it?)

I’m sorry, I really am

The fact of the matter, is that I feel like a jerk for writing this. I don’t want to diminish the contributions of those who committed years of their lives to making these games a reality. I believe that most of them did so with noble and well-meaning intentions. Similarly, I don’t want to take anything from those athletes who have invested so heavily in something they love, knowing the odds they are up against.

More personally, though, I feel like these comments almost stand in the way of those who simply enjoyed the games. My parents, for example, greatly enjoyed what they took in, and felt moved by a great deal of it. They loved watching the athletes, hearing their stories, and seeing some of them triumph over great adversity. Meanwhile, I enjoyed my son shouting, “Go Canada Go!” even though he probably didn’t fully understand this chant. (Yesterday he asked us, “which Canada won the hockey game?”)

It’s not that I want to stand in the way of any of this. I just have to ask if we’re critical enough of such events and if we might want to demand better. Fact is: the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is a for-profit corporation that fiercely guards its brand; nevertheless, it receives the backing of our governments (and therefore the people) to make these games happen. Actually, this is an understatement. Candidate cities seem incapable of controlling themselves in an effort to woo the affections of this company—let’s not forget that: the Olympics are an event controlled by a wholly private entity.

And at what cost? Certainly, there are harder to measure (at least at this stage) benefits to hosting the games, including spin-off investment, infrastructure upgrades, economic development, tourism activity, and many other things I’m likely ill-aware of. Nevertheless, at a cost of $6 billion, we’d be remiss to not ask whether value will actually be found here, and whether the public should be shouldered with such a burden.

What they tell us to do

As I’ve noted, I don’t wish to be curmudgeonly or a spoil-sport. I want to “believe,” I’m just not sure if we should set the bar so low. Yes, sports are important. And, yes, Canada is a wonderful country, of which I am proud to be a citizen (even if I don’t have a red Canada hoodie and mitts). My feeling, though, is that we’re being sold an idea of “connection” that comes from a position of privilege and is limited to a small segment of the population. As a people, could we do better?

There’s one point I’ve only referenced in passing here, but I want to end on this note. As I watched these Olympic games take shape, I couldn’t help but consider the environmental cost: the materials and facilities put together for a single, brief use; the massive carbon emissions required to transport all these people to the city; the helicopters and trucks moving in snow from hundreds of miles away to snow-barren ski facilities (perhaps Mother Nature’s own “in joke”). Sure, these were to be a “green” Olympics, but we’re largely paying lip-service to a massive concern we’re painfully reluctant to truly address.

Sure, the Olympic torch was made from recycled materials. Yep, Olympic sponsor GM brought in a hybrid. Fine enough, but it’s like changing your fucking light bulbs and thinking you’re making a difference. Sorry folks, it’s far too little, and no amount of varnish will change the fact that the true legacy we afford the children of this planet is an ugly one.  Yet the charade continues, as Coke talks of “saving” polar bears: greenwashing at its truest, by a company that probably couldn’t go green, even if it truly wanted to.

What if, for a moment, we united as a people, with real “greatness” in mind? We all love this notion of, “triumph in the face of adversity.” In my mind, there’s been no greater opportunity to put such notions to the test. Perhaps these corporate slogans I’m so critical of might even serve as a starting point.

Maybe we should “force fate” as Nike tells us, and get in shape by wearing out those old runners in the closet, instead of watching more televised sports and buying unnecessary sporting apparel. We could “believe” as CTV tells us and turn off our boob-tubes, in order to truly connect with those around us.  And I’d even like to support Visa’s mantra of go world.” If they’re really thinking about the world, they’ll likely agree that we’ll need to slow our consumption of crap (facilitated by those cards) in order to still have one.

Sorry to go all “environmental” on you. I know what a drag that can be. I’m all for the human spirit, and the pursuit of excellence—be it in whichever form it comes. My concern, however, is that in the haze of corporate fueled feel-good sentiment, we might just be amusing ourselves to death. I wonder if we should perhaps ask more of ourselves.

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