Making do with tarnished spectacles -- so enjoy the Olympics

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B.C. has always been a centre of excellence for the Olympians of citizen protest. Vancouver is its Athens; they could send out the torch from Whistler. In fact, maybe they did, to Athens, in view of this week's demonstrations there by taxi drivers and others over being told to pay for the crimes of bankers and financiers. In B.C., the team is ready for the other side to use rough tactics such as pepper spray and tasers.

There's lots to protest at the Games that start tonight. About $1-billion for mostly stupid security, an amount that would be better spent on a city core with crying social needs. The usual baloney about economic gains that won't materialize, aside from a faster ride to the airport and some high-priced condos. A "muzzle clause" for Olympiad artists that makes them promise not to say anything mean about the Games or the sponsors. And ugliest to me: ads with Donald Sutherland smirking and telling us to get into it, like those demeaning Make Noise signs at hockey games. So it does make sense to protest against the hypocrisy, hype and rotten priorities.

Yet, there's also, always, the wonder and inspiration of the athletes. It slips through. It's like the effect of last week's Super Bowl on the bedraggled, maltreated people of New Orleans. Even hardened sports leftist Dave Zirin (A People's History of Sports in the United States: From Bull-Baiting to Barry Bonds), who calls the whole exercise "hooey," confessed he was moved by the happiness and harmony it brought to the city. Not because people think all will now be well, but because it gave them at least a taste of what they deserve.

I think that's the nobler purpose served by events such as the Olympics: to remind us what human life can be like, though we may rarely experience it. In his book Open, tennis great Andre Agassi uses one word for his feelings about his sport: hate. From the start. His great pride isn't any grand slam, it's the school he created for poor kids in his hometown. Still, at book's end, he and his wife, Steffi Graf, go to a public court to play, with nothing, finally, at stake, and love it. Can't live with it, can't live without it.

I once wrote a play on those Olympians of NHL hockey, the 1970s Montreal Canadiens. One director wanted to end his production with the actors tearing off their jerseys and skating without them, to show their release from the constraints of pro sports, money etc. But it didn't work; it felt disturbingly violent, as if the players were attacking their own identities and the images that were so dear to audiences. Basically, you can't eliminate deep parts of what you are, just because you find them unsavoury. You have to find ways to live with them. Andre Agassi says contradiction is the word that encapsulates his life. It covers the Olympics, too.

Bob Gainey, who captained some of those Montreal teams, resigned this week as the Canadiens' general manager. In his playing days, he was known as a great defensive forward. But in a Game 7 playoff overtime, he went behind the Boston net, dug out the puck, fed it in front and his team scored. They mobbed him. Searching to describe the feeling, he said: "It was ecstasy, really." Since then, his life has been successful but difficult. His wife, Cathy, died of cancer. His daughter Laura drowned while sailing in the Atlantic on a training voyage. And there was that moment of bliss. Contradictions.

I think one thing that moves us in sports is that those with merit tend to win. This is unlike the rest of life, where merit often wins moral victories but loses in real time, with exceptions such as Nelson Mandela, whose release 20 years ago was marked yesterday -- and even that was followed by more of the same for most South Africans. Some day, it may end otherwise. We make do, meanwhile, with tarnished spectacles and anticipations such as the Olympics. Enjoy.

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