Knowing that I would soon board a plane for South Korea, a friend asked me a simple question the other day.
“Is there any reason to care about these Olympics?” he wondered.
It made me stop and think.
Admittedly, the setup is not ideal.
The 2018 Winter Games, which open in 100 days, will occur in a place that few of us in Canada had heard of before it landed the Olympics. Pyeongchang is a small community half a world away, in a time zone that is difficult for a North American audience.
There are political tensions in the region, and while South Korea is a safe and prosperous nation, the spectre of its neighbour to the north and how it relates to the western world is very real.
Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee is struggling with issues of widespread corruption in the wake of the Rio Games. And the recent doping scandal with Russia at its centre continues to demand our attention.
On a smaller scale, the best male hockey players in the world will not be participating at these Olympics. That’s the business of the NHL and the IOC, and we can do nothing about it.
But, I remind myself, these kinds of negative stories always seem to dominate at this point in the Olympic cycle.
Before Rio, it was pollution and the Zika virus. Before Sochi, it was Putin and the oppressive nature of his regime. Before Vancouver, it was the fear that there would be no snow. Before Beijing, it was uneasiness about human-rights issues.
And yet, in each of these cases, the Games began and suddenly millions, even billions, of people around the world found new things to care about.
Inevitably, once the athletes take the stage, they become the story and provide us with the reason to sit up and take notice. They produce moments that entertain and amaze us. They have an immense power to draw people together in a shared experience.
For proof, look no further back than the most recent Olympics, in Rio last year.
Who could have imagined teenaged swimming sensation Penny Oleksiak and her impact on Canadian youth?
The drama and exhilaration of the Usain Bolt-Andre De Grasse rivalry was captivating.
The Canadian women’s soccer players who beat Brazil in their own backyard made us feel proud.
These are things many of us didn’t see coming, but came to care deeply about.
History in the making
Some of the moments yet to come in Pyeongchang we can anticipate.
Canadian figure skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will try to work their magic again and cement their place as the greatest ice dancers of all time.
The Canadian and American women’s hockey teams will no doubt renew their rivalry, and a thrilling championship match that again goes to overtime could be the result. There was no better hockey game than the one that produced a Canadian gold medal in Sochi.
Then there’s the Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris and his escape from a near-death experience. Can he overcome his injuries and reach the ultimate goal of standing atop the podium against all odds?
There’s also the wonder of the most prolific woman ever on skis to look forward to. American Lindsey Vonn could descend the mountain and rise triumphantly into the history books if she wins again.
In short track speed skating, the South Koreans will no doubt stage a circus on their home ice. It’s a hugely popular sport in that country and the ones they love to beat just happen to be the Canadians. National pride is at stake.
Athletes won’t let us down
Surely, more moments will come out of the blue.
Before the NHLers arrived on the Olympic stage, who could have foreseen a bunch of American college kids knocking off the mighty Soviets and delivering the legendary “Miracle on Ice” at the Lake Placid Games in 1980?
More recently, Canadian Alexandre Bilodeau’s back-to-back freestyle skiing gold medals in 2010 and 2014, which revealed the poignant relationship with his biggest fan, his brother Frederic, brought tears to many eyes.
In 2010, figure skater Joannie Rochette soared above tragedy to claim a personal, almost spiritual victory. Her medal performance following her mother’s death produced an international outpouring of emotion.
In Sochi in 2014, Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio ceded his spot to teammate Denny Morrison, and the resulting medal was a feel-good product of humanity and the elusive principle of sportsmanship.
In the end, after considering the response to my friend’s question about why we should care about these Olympics, I think I’ve found the answer.
While I acknowledge and understand the many things that demand our attention in the lead-up to the Games and in their aftermath, I believe there is something that will ultimately override these factors, if only fleetingly.
The reason to care is simple: We need to be drawn together and entertained. To be amazed by the competition. We crave inspiration and something to feel proud about.
Only the athletes can give us these rare moments. If we’re patient for the next 100 days, I feel confident they won’t let us down.
They never do.