Finding Olympic meaning beyond beer and the ’80s

TORINO, Italy — There’s a movie that came out in 2003 called “Camp.” In case you don’t get it, I’ll fill you in: the title is meant to be a joke. I have not seen it, but if they made a sequel (maybe “Unbelievable Camp”), it would have to be about these Olympics.

Some of you may have heard from Jon Stewart about the opening ceremony’s soundtrack, which featured countries like Iran entering the Mussolini-built stadium to the glorious sound of American pop music circa 1980. But the ridiculousness of the Italians’ idea of glamour and pomp doesn’t end there.

For one, they have cheerleaders at Olympic hockey games. Cheerleaders. At hockey games. They stand in the aisles and dance along to ’80s music in their yellow, orange and red uniforms (presumably chosen for their international neutrality rather than their insanity). According to Jane Resor ’01, whose fiance, Jeff Hamilton ’01, played hockey in Finland, this is common practice in Europe. Some people say it adds to the fun of the game, but I say it shows just how little Europeans care about hockey. Would you ever see cheerleaders at Liverpool-Chelsea? I think not.

So after I waded through the mud pit that the dust bowl outside of the Palasport Olimpico had become and made it into Monday’s medal games, I was subjected to these cheerleaders for the second time in four days. At least they were hot. One of them was even blonde.

The funny thing about Torino, you see, is that no one is blonde. Because of this and because men are pigs, every woman over the age of 12 whose hair is lighter than jet black gets nearly non-stop whistles and “Ciao Bella”s on the street. I talked to one of the victims, who happened to be 15. She took the 30-year-old men hitting on her in stride. Respect.

I offer this disclaimer for the benefit of Silliman College: I love the Safety Dance. Everyone does. But that’s because we’re drunk and it’s a once-a-year thing. When you hear “Jesse’s Girl” eight times in one year, let alone one week, it can get pretty old.

When it wasn’t ’80s music, the soundtrack to my Olympic visit was dominated by bad cover bands. Specifically, it was the bad cover band that played in between the bronze and gold medal games in the tent diplomatically called the “fans’ lounge” or something but was really “the Drunken Canadian holding area.”

It’s actually really amazing how many $5 Budweisers a few fired-up Canadians can tear through in the 30 minutes before a game. I don’t know what impressed me more: how much they drank, how much money they spent, or how much better that cover band got once I had a few myself.

Anyway, they were providing free face painting in the tent, and as the Americans had already played for and won the bronze, I had trouble determining what could make me look like the biggest idiot at the game. I ended up with a Red Sox “B” on each cheek and a somewhat-redeeming American flag on my forehead.

So my editors want me to write something a little more serious than my last column to kind of wrap up my experience here in Torino. As you might imagine, this is hard because it’s incredibly difficult to take ’80s pop music, hockey cheerleaders or drunken Canadians seriously. But there is this:

Nothing brings people together like the potent combination of sports and beer. This may seem like a frivolous, beer- and fatigue-induced point, but it’s true. At the end of the bronze medal game, Swedes, Canucks and the few remaining Americans were milling around, buying bad pizza and picking up their first beers. But by the time the bad cover band got into “Sweet Home Alabama,” the beer tent was a picture of international cooperation and love. Never mind the irony of hundreds of hockey fans “singing songs about the Southland” — Swedes, Canadians and Americans were all moshing together in front of the stage, waving huge flags, covered in face paint, smiling and hugging each other drunkenly. It was, and I don’t hesitate to say this, truly beautiful.

So the Canadians and Swedes played their game, and the Canadians won, as expected, with the Swedes grabbing silver. Then the Americans, back in the stadium for the ceremony, joined them out on the ice to receive their somewhat awful CD-shaped medals and definitely-a-little-pervy kisses from the old dude who was handing them out. At this point, the U.S. and Canadian teams combined had more blondes than there normally are in all of northern Italy.

But I digress. I stood with Helen Resor’s family, cheering on our team, a few rows behind where they were receiving their medals. We waved the flag and yelled. Some of the family members had obviously been crying earlier, but there were no tears now.

“Is it okay to be happy for the Canadians?” someone asked me. I didn’t know. I was thinking of the end of the bronze medal game, when three-time Olympian Jenny Potter carried her five-year-old daughter Madison out on the ice and hugged her teammates in what is certain to be her and many others’ last Olympics. I was thinking about how Wayne Gretzky, arguably the all-time best player of any sport, came up to U.S. goalie Chanda Gunn to wish her luck before the U.S.-Sweden game.

But it wasn’t until the very end, when the Canadians were crying and the flags were raised up to the very top of the huge stadium, that I really understood what this was all about. They played “O Canada,” and the Palasport, packed with Canadians, erupted in song while the Americans stood watching and listening. There is nothing like that moment, when everyone else stands and listens to the winners’ national anthem. It was at that point that I felt the worst for Helen and for Julie Chu and Angela Ruggeiro and Katie King and all the veterans who probably won’t be back.

Don’t get me wrong. Bronze kicks ass — that’s one more Olympic medal than most people will ever have. And Helen had a great tournament. No one scored on the Americans when she was on the ice. No one. I can’t wait to have a player like that back in Ingalls.

But one more Olympic thought hung in the back of my mind — and Helen’s too, I’m sure. Team USA will play its next Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. We’ll have another chance to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” for our northern neighbors, and this time, it will be in their house.

Helen is 20. God willing, she’ll be back.

There’s nothing campy about that.

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