With around 10 minutes left in the third period, the bar knew the game was over. The Canadian men’s hockey team was up 3–0 over Sweden and playing such a strong defensive game that the Swedes were barely touching the puck. Some of the world’s most gifted athletes flashed across the ice in front of us, CBC’s cameras often zooming in to capture the beads of sweat trickling across their foreheads and subtle facial twitches of fear, anger, excitement.
Thousands of miles away in Alberta, bar patrons watched agape, eggs going cold and the carbonation in their 5 a.m. beers fizzling. Sweat also trickled across their foreheads — they cringed and howled at every shot Sweden took.
At 60 seconds left on the clock, a rambling, incoherent attempt to sing the national anthem broke out, building up to an explosion of noise when the clock hit zero. “We did it!” people screamed. High-fives and hugs all around. A few guys stole kisses. Hockey was Canada’s game once again. “We are the greatest,” my friend Evan laughed, “and everyone sitting here drinking had everything to do with this victory.”
What would have happened had Canada lost to Sweden? Maybe we would we have reacted with more class than many American hockey fans, who took to name-calling over Twitter after losing to us in the semi-finals 1–0. Maple syrup seems to be a popular target for Americans to poke fun at, although it is delicious and less racist than their Aunt Jemima equivalent. But Canada would not have dealt with a silver medal well. The nation would have been dejected. Headlines screaming, “Heartbreak.” Navel-gazing for weeks, mute condemnation of many of the players, especially Sidney Crosby, who failed to produce a goal during the tournament until the second period of the last game.
It’s quite possible the country would have breathed a collective sigh and sucked defeat up, much like the 2006 disaster in Turin, Italy. But who remembers seeing Vancouver in flames after the Canucks lost game 7 in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final? I’m only half joking, but after hearing the boos in the bar we were in everytime Sweden took a shot I started imagining an Ikea sales associate herding Swedish immigrants to (collapsible) shelter through the midst of a downtown pogrom. How is it possible for our nation’s self-esteem to hinge so precariously on several guys’ ability to whack a piece of vulcanized rubber around?
Sidney Crosby was born in Nova Scotia and spends most of his time in Pittsburgh, eating whole-grain pasta and getting up at 6 a.m. to do thousands of sit-ups. The fact that I am also Canadian does nothing to keep him in the gym every day, nor did being born in Canada magically enhance the development of his bone density, the elasticity of his smooth muscle tissue or his brain’s ability to calculate puck trajectories. The reflexes and power demonstrated by players like Crosby are marvelous and make watching sports worthwhile, but it’s pointless to emotionally invest oneself in athletes on superficial factors like playing for the same city or country.
Patriotism is one st*ep away from nationalism. Without delving into sociological gibberish, sports patriotism is one of the shittier forms of national pride because it separates countries and cities into winners and losers. While cultural and scientific achievements can often be shared with and influence the rest of the world, such as advances in medical technology, patriotism’s demand for sports domination can be militaristic, bordering on jingoism. And because the physical demands of sport are grounded in visible genetics, the shadow of racism always looms over competition between states.
When African-American sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, German high command was furious, and not only because Owens was an American.
Sports are exciting to watch. Urine and saliva analysis has shown that fans’ adrenaline and cortisol levels react to sporting events as though they were playing themselves. But sports are also important to participate in because they keep our bodies healthy and promote self-discipline and teamwork.
We all live vicariously through others to some extent, and when we are passionate about something, watching a master is inspiring. However, memorizing stats and replays is not as fulfilling, productive or impressive as practicing the sport yourself, however unskilled you may be.
I would argue that modern sport’s institutionalized obsession with being the absolute best and dominating the competition has contributed to many other social problems outside of patriotic fervour. By overpaying our best athletes and placing them on a pedestal, we encourage children to distinguish themselves by winning at any cost. Sometimes this means cheating, sometimes this means literally giving their lives.
Many of you remember Michael Gee, a minor hockey league player from Alberta who suffered heart failure on the ice after pushing himself too hard. My own memories of minor hockey grew increasingly unpleasant the older I got, as players and parents battled coaches for more ice time and recognition, the conflicts often escalating into insanity whenever we got whiff that a scout might be attending a game.
From an early age, athletes considered elite are afforded special status in nonsensical ways. At my high school, those of us elected to any team’s starting lineup got to wear collared shirts and ties on game days, to identify us to our peers. I thought this was stupid even then, but I wore a shirt anyway because I mistakenly thought it would get me laid.
While privileges like these make other people feel excluded, insecure and turned off from sports, sometimes they also result in serious offences, like severe bullying and sex-related crimes. Like the Steubenville cases, these are often covered up to protect the reputation of the athletes, the school, the city or the country.
What a shame that this kind of blind hero-worship stems from nothing but a primitive, tribal desire to see those jerk-offs from across the watering hole beaten.
George Orwell once wrote: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” In many ways, professional sport has become a replacement for war and for the gladiatorial arena, a way to sate our suppressed bloodlust. If that stops Canadians from murdering each other in the streets, I’m okay with that, but we should recognize sport’s very real potential to inspire anger and misery. And maybe, just maybe, that means taking professional hockey a little less seriously.