If you watched Sunday’s closing ceremony of the just concluded Olympic Winter Games, you saw a mix of humor and humility. Canadians, known for poking fun at themselves, did plenty of it during the two-hour show from BC Place in downtown Vancouver. From actor and commercial pitchman William Shatner rising from the center of the stage to proclaim, in his own special way, that he’s proud to be Canadian to the huge floating moose that circled the arena from high above, the closing ceremony had it all.
Amid all the joyous mayhem that ensued in the wake of the terrific 17-day sporting festival, there was one Olympian taking part in the Vancouver Games finale who could be excused if her mind was elsewhere.
Chilean alpine skier Noelle Barahona almost missed the ceremony. If it wasn’t for the fact that she couldn’t get a flight back to her homeland earlier in the weekend, Barahona would have already been back on South American soil.
While Barahona and the small Chilean delegation prepared to close out the final weekend of the games, a deadly earthquake shook their homeland to its very core. The news spread north and the rush to the airport was on. When Barahona learned that family members, many of whom accompanied the skier to Vancouver, and friends in her native Santiago were fine, Noelle decided to take part in the closing extravaganza.
Barahona was the only Chilean athlete to walk into BC Place with her fellow Olympians. Chile’s two other athletes, both alpine skiers, had already left Vancouver as they had previously planned.
The night gave Barahona a chance to catch-up with and say goodbye to the many friends that she made during her stay in the athletes village. It allowed the skier to reflect on her Olympic experience. It also, for a few short hours, gave the Chilean a chance to enjoy her remaining hours in Canada before making the trip south and into the unknown.
Life for Noelle Barahona was surreal, on many levels, here at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Returning to life in an earthquake ravaged country will likely be the same.
It’s always hard to be objective when you have “worked” an Olympics - lived and breathed every day of it, on the ground, from the inside - but I believe this was a great Winter Games.
The fact that Vancouver 2010 got off to such a difficult start actually worked in its favor. After days of rain, controversy and tragedy the mood slowly improved - and felt all the more satisfying for the turnaround.
Why did it change for the better? Well, to manipulate that overused political slogan: “It’s the sport stupid!”
Yes, the ever-increasing commercialization of the Olympics is an irritation and, yes, we in the media can be guilty of exaggerating both successes and failures.
However, the Games are still inspirational, and when you peel back the layers you’re left with the individual stories of courage, determination and excellence which make sport, generally, and the Olympics, in particular, so compelling.
In case you missed them, here are my favorites:
Petra Majdic won a bronze medal after skiing more than five kilometers cross country with broken ribs and a punctured lung. She had injured herself during a fall in training, but refused to take a pain killing injection before the race because it would hinder her movement and she was desperate to win Slovenia’s first medal in the event.
Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette somehow found the focus to claim a bronze medal just days after her mother died in Vancouver General Hospital following a heart attack. Therese Rochette had come to the city to watch her daughter compete. Joannie, still stunned by the sudden loss of her mum, earned an emotional place on the podium.
He’s broke, a recovering alcoholic and has tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion, but American freestyle skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson conquered all of his personal demons to take the silver medal in the aerials competition.
Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, Ghana’s "Snow Leopard," put a smile on everyone’s face. With echoes of Jamaica’s bobsled team and ski-jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, the former indoor ski center worker rightfully claimed his place among the Winter Olympians here - and successfully negotiated two runs in the men’s slalom.
There were more than two-and-a-half-thousand athletes at these Vancouver Games and there are many other stories, not to mention one of the most exciting hockey matches of all time. Before I came to Canada for the first time I said I didn’t “get” (ice) hockey. I do now.
I also got the experience of a lifetime - not a cliché, a fact. Every Olympics is unique and inspirational, and this one has been no exception.