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Vancouver 2010: A country’s defining moment

Submitted by on May 3, 2010 – 6:07 pmNo Comment


Gory footage of a critically injured athlete being shuffled into an air ambulance on the opening day of the Vancouver 2010 Games did something all the medals in the competition couldn’t – caused the international community to abruptly turn its proverbial neck to the scene of the crash, a frozen track at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia, Canada.

The untimely death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, hours before the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Games, not only caused those outside looking in to take notice of the frozen nation north of the 49th for the first time in a long time, but played the role of catalyst to Canada’s defining moment.

“Things got off to a good start, with the early focus on developments in the luge after Friday’s tragedy,” Chris Zelkovich of the Toronto Star reported at the time. Asked later about the statement, Zelkovich added via e-mail: “There’s no doubt that the Georgian luger’s death focussed international attention on Canada, though I’m not sure much of it was positive.”

In fact, very little of the international press was positive at the onset of the Games, namely as a result of the tragedy.  In particular, the media attacked the country’s $117-million “Own the Podium” program, blaming it, in some instances, for Kumaritashvili’s death.

The sub-heading for a story published in the UK’s Guardian on the first day of competition summed up the international media’s reaction to the event: “Canadians are accused of limiting practice runs and turning luge racers into ‘crash-test dummies.’”

Journalist Lawrence Donegan, who wrote the story, took aim not only at “Own the Podium” and the Canadian Olympic Committee, but at the country’s people. “Canadians of themselves, who, in pursuit of their own Olympic dream – 30 medals at least, with as many golds as possible – appear to have forgotten that national ­characteristic for which they are best known: politeness.”

“Money has been poured into training, while a hard-edged approach has been adopted in dealing with other teams, most noticeably in granting them only limited access to facilities such as the sliding track,” Donegan wrote. “Such behaviour is within the Olympic rules, but it came across as distinctly un-Canadian at the time, and in the context of Friday’s death it seemed like a terrible misjudgment.”

Despite, and perhaps as a result of, an onslaught of negative attention surrounding Kumaritashvili’s death, Canada’s 2010 Games attracted record audiences both in Canada and the U.S. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad press.


South of the border, the gold medal hockey final was the most-watched hockey game in 30 years. Not since the “Miracle on Ice,” when the Americans squared off against Finland in the gold medal game in 1980 at Lake Placid, had so many Americans tuned in to a hockey game.

As reported by Ethan Sacks of the New York Daily News, “NBC’s usual ratings for its Sunday NHL game average around one-tenth of what the network scored for the U.S.-Canada game.”

The broadcast drew an average viewership of 27.6 million and peaked when American Zach Parise scored an equalizer with 24 seconds left in regulation, at 34.8 million, surpassing the average viewership for any day of the most recent World Series, NCAA Final Four or Daytona 500.

Nielsen ratings in the U.S. found the opening ceremony, which was dedicated to the memory of Kumaritashvili, attracted the largest number of viewers ever for a non-U.S. hosted winter Olympics. According to Nielsen’s figures, the opening ceremonies drew an average viewership of 32.6 million, a dramatic increase over the 2006 Olympics, when 22.2 million tuned in to the opening ceremonies in Turin.

A week into the Games, when Shani Davis (speed skating), Lindsey Vonn (skiing) and Shaun White (snowboarding) took to ice and snow, on Wednesday Feb. 17, more than 30 million people tuned in to NBC. The audience nearly doubled that of American Idol. It was the first time in six years that any broadcast beat American Idol.

For the 17 nights of the Games, NBC averaged 24.4 million viewers. In Turin four years ago, that number was 20.2 million.

Canadian interest in the Games increased exponentially as the 17 days passed. The opening ceremonies were watched by an average of 13.4 million Canadians, while CTVOlympics.ca and RDSolympiques.ca clocked more than 110 million page views throughout the Games (more than twice what the CBC’s site counted in Beijing at the summer Games in 2008).

The CTV-Rogers consortium (which beat out the CBC for the rights to air the 2010 Games) reported the Vancouver closing ceremony was watched by an average of 14.3 million viewers, with 24.5 million tuning in for some part of the broadcast, making it the nation’s second most-watched show ever. Canada’s most-watched broadcast ever came hours earlier.

Though it’s rare to be able to be able to pinpoint a country’s defining moment, Canadian pride peaked at an all-time high on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010. When Sidney Crosby slid an innocent shot by American goaltender Ryan Miller seven minutes, 40 seconds into overtime, the nation rejoiced.

The game was seen by an average of 16.6 million viewers, with ratings figures showing that 22 million people were tuned in when Crosby scored the winning goal. More than 26 million Canadians took in part of the golden victory.

With the win over the U.S., Canada clinched its fourteenth gold and set a record for gold medals by a host country in a winter Olympics. The country also tied the record for the most gold at a winter Games, set by the Soviet Union in 1976 and equalled by Norway in 2002.

Perhaps even more importantly, Canada finished with five more gold than the first-place Americans and four more than the second-place Germans. Though the goal of the “Own the Podium” program was to see Canada score the most medals of any country – a daunting task given the country’s population is but a fraction of that of most of the competing countries –  it wound up in third place overall and first in the gold-medal column. Not bad for a frozen mosaic of 33 million.

An Ipsos Reid survey released in late February found most Canadians felt Vancouver 2010 was a more defining moment for the nation than the Games in Montreal (’76) and Calgary (’88).

Commissioned by the Historica-Dominion Institute, the study also showed that even Canadians 55 and older believed the 2010 Games were a more defining moment than Expo ’67 and the 1972 Summit Series.

“The Vancouver Games are truly Canada’s moment,” said Andrew Cohen of Historica-Dominion. “We are seeing a new sense of pride, not only in our athletes, but in ourselves as a people.”

In addition to being accepted as the nation’s crowning moment by all ages, races and both sexes, the 2010 Games also helped improve federal-provincial divisions. Seventy-four percent of respondents to the survey believed the Games belonged, not to British Columbia or Vancouver, but to Canada. Even in Vancouver, 61 percent believed the Games were Canada’s.

Lastly, 45 percent of respondents this year said they belonged first to the country, ahead of their hometown or province. That number is up from 38 percent last year. One has to assume the seven percent spike in national pride is thanks, at least in part, to respondents from la belle province.

Story: Remi L. Roy

Photos: Elliott Vlad

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