British journalists are not the only ones raising awkward questions about the multitudinous stumbles that have characterized the beginning of the Winter Olympics. They merely attract the most attention, for reasons that have nothing much to do with the truth or falsehood of their criticisms. These reasons include:
1. Cultural cringe: the inherent Canadian awareness of inferiority, and suspicion of condescension, provoked by anything British-accented. No beast is feebler than the Canadian journalist who wraps himself in the flag and rushes tearfully to his typewriter or microphone upon the first hint of perceived sneering at the colonials. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good copy. I saw the technique, used cynically, work like a charm at the ’01 Athletics Worlds here in Edmonton when a couple of old Fleet Street soaks spoke unlacquered truth about the city’s broad streak of Soviet shabbiness. But to engage on that level is to perpetuate the cringe, and besides, there’s reason 2:
2. Criticisms naturally hit harder when they’re written with great force. British writers are vigorous, direct, unflinching, entertainment-minded, and, in general, better at their trade than ours. (Rest assured—they’ll be, if anything, much harder on their own 2012 Summer Games.) Their newspapers are more fun than ours, pay good writers much more, and are doing better as businesses. They are also rank with ethical failings and obnoxious practices, to be sure, but almost all of those arise from trying too hard to get the story, intruding too far into private matters, competing too viciously, overreacting to perceived injustice. The failings of Canada’s press are all, as a rule, on the other side—the side of compromise, laziness, and political correctness. For instance, look no further than reason 3:
3. Canadian journalists covering the Games have, virtually to a man, accepted the premise that the Games provide an accurate moral, artistic, and technical reflection on Canada as a whole. I don’t remember signing that contract, and if I were going to sign one with a city and its business and volunteer communities, I wouldn’t have chosen Vancouver. Are you kidding? Place is screwy! As it happens, Alberta already staked its international reputation on a Winter Olympics, thanks, and did fine. The rest of you are quite welcome to let yourselves be judged on the basis of this fiasco, but as far as I can see, you haven’t been asked.
I hasten to add that the relative success of the 1988 Games—painfully emphasized by the Great Calgary Zamboni Airlift—is not entirely to Alberta’s credit. After all, Beijing put on a heck of an Olympics, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It put on an outstanding show partly for the reasons I wouldn’t want to live there: crushing social homogeneity, one-party government, lack of civil liberties, central economic planning. If the Games needed a row of shacks in Beijing knocked down, they got knocked down, without a lot of paperwork or argument. If industrial pollution was a problem, mills and factories could be shut down arbitrarily for as long as needed to render the air breathable by gweilo weaklings. Protesters delaying VIP access to the Opening Ceremonies? In China? Forget about it. (Literally: forget about it or you’ll be sent to the laogai for re-education.)
I don’t mean to equate Calgary to Beijing, but the factors that allowed Calgary to succeed as an Olympic host probably did include weak political opposition on the municipal and provincial levels; a small, dominant social-financial elite; a certain degree of cultural homogeneity; and a borderline-inappropriate degree of coziness between legislators, regulators, and judges. What you want in an ideal Olympic city is that it be quite rich, very conformist, and a teensy bit crooked. Calgary wouldn’t be as good a host in 2010 as it was in 1988; it’s a more interesting place now.
And Vancouver may have bitten off slightly more than it can chew, precisely because it’s about the most interesting place in the country, in good respects and bad. It’s not a well-oiled machine, it’s a self-sufficient permanent riot. I have always understood its disorder to be part of its glory. I would have put an Olympics on the moon before I’d have put one there.