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Canada takes the gold in self-flagellation
The myth of the understated, gracious, humble Canadian needs to go away

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Saturday, February 24, 2018 – Page S3

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- After Kevin Koe lost his bronze-medal curling game here on Friday, an American sitting across from me said, "I suppose Canada is going to make a five-part series about where it all went wrong."

That's not exactly right.

It'll be a 12-parter, narrated by Gordon Pinsent, featuring Koe and Rachel Homan being marched through downtown North Bay trailed by William Shatner ringing a bell, crying, "Shame. Shame. Shame."

Because we are who we are, we will find a way to turn an Olympic curling disappointment into Curlingpocalypse and a Crisis of Canadian Olympic Faith.

It had all been going so smoothly, but as a rule, Canada does not deal well with success.

No one can just enjoy being good at some things. We have to find some reason to feel bad about all the others.

Take Jocelyne Larocque, the women's hockey player who took off her silver medal after a loss in Thursday's final. Some people were angry about that. And to those people I would say that if you have the emotional resources to be genuinely angry about anything that happens at a hockey game, your life is one of unusual ease.

An athlete can feel that he/she has "won" a bronze medal or "lost" a silver. Possibly at the same time. Both things can be true depending on your perspective.

Larocque was not allowed that freedom. Other than declining to wear an expensive necklace, she hadn't made a show of herself.

She didn't rubbish her opponents afterward or say anything unkind.

She didn't chuck the thing into the crowd or begin beating someone with it. As gestures of defiance go, this was pretty milquetoast.

Yet within 24 hours, Larocque was forced into ragged retreat.

She released a boilerplate statement so stilted in the modern language of crisis PR, you could feel a fixer's hands on top of hers as she typed.

"I meant no disrespect," Larocque wrote, in part. "My actions did not demonstrate the values our team, myself and my family live, and for that I am truly sorry."

"She is very remorseful and takes responsibility for her error," the team's general manager, Melody Davidson said.

First, you meant at least a little bit of disrespect. And second, no one ought to care. Convicted criminals should be "truly sorry" and "very remorseful" for what they've done, not jewellery refuseniks.

Can you imagine this happening in Russia, or China, or the United States? Unless there was a Wheaties commercial at risk, you cannot. They'd just move past it.

But because someone had feelings on Instagram, for Canada it's a national disgrace.

None of us seems to notice that we are no longer the country everybody else in the world admires unreservedly. We have become more like our southern neighbours and are viewed that way, especially at the Winter Olympics.

Canada is a big shot here, with all the good and bad things that entails.

But when it suits us, we fall back on the old idea that no one is more gracious, humble and understated than we are. Woe to the athlete who muddies up that narrative.

Which brings us back to curling, another thing we're all in a hurry to feel rattled by.

Homan pooched it first. Worse, she did it in an unlikable way. She didn't embrace the core Canadian value of losing with enthusiasm.

Like many elite competitors, she has that I-totally-stepped-onyour-hand-by-accident approach to the game. It's okay to be that way if you're a winner. It doesn't play so well when you lose.

Though no burned rock incident will trail them, Koe and his rink had a similar problem. They were put together with a Dirty Dozen model, abandoning former colleagues to form a curling superteam. They tromped on our idealized vision of a curling unit - good buddies from the sticks who love the sport, having a few beers and each other. In this case, they quite clearly only loved the sport.

That allowed them one option - win.

Once they were knocked out of gold-medal contention, a collective cognitive switch flipped from "go the distance" to "are we there yet?" They lost a bronze-medal game on Friday that most of the team slept through, though they were physically in attendance.

Canada had never before in modern Olympic history failed to win a medal in curling. Now we've managed a two-fer of failure.

The only people who'll feel relieved after this are Homan's rink.

Now they get to share the pain with someone else.

"It's hugely disappointing," Koe said afterward. "What more can you say? You don't have to say much else."

Since it's Canada, he'll have to say much else. Koe will have to wear this loss like sackcloth for years to come. He is the man who put the fly in Canada's Olympic soup.

Is Canadian curling in trouble?

Of course not. We're the only goddamn people who care en masse about the sport. If curling can be in trouble in Canada, then kangaroo spotting may some day be in trouble in Australia.

All that we've been taught here is that there is no such thing as an Olympic monopoly. Not for long.

The superpower status in women's hockey continues only because putting that sort of team together is onerous and expensive and, at the end, the best possible outcome is one measly medal. It's not worth it to countries who can plow money into two or three biathletes and expect to see multiple Olympic podiums for their trouble.

On that cynical level, curling has become more attractive. A team features only two to four people. There are now three Olympic medals as incentive.

South Korea's wildly popular women's team, unpromisingly called the "Garlic Girls" after the main farming staple of their rural region, are the stars of this event.

This country built its first curling facility 12 years ago. Like the rest of the world, they've caught on fast.

Canada will always be the world's great curling nation, but it does not follow that we will always be the very best at it. That's the difference between pride in ownership and covetousness.

To feel that losing at curling cuts at the core of who we are or what we do is something beyond masochism. It's vainglory and it's unseemly. Far more unseemly than refusing to put on a silver medal.

The whole point of evangelizing curling - every Canadian in curling history has done the missionary work - is so that other people can enjoy it, too. And that doesn't mean enjoying sixth place. They will occasionally win.

That doesn't lessen us, any more than an athlete having a snit in public can.

But feeling it does seem to be a Canadian habit we can't shake, no matter how many podiums we own.

Beating ourselves up for not doing enough, even when we've done a ton, may be our actual core Olympic value.

Associated Graphic

Kevin Koe's loss in the bronze-medal men's curling match has rattled Canadian fans.


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