Sports Fans: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | Out and About Aug. 2011
Although it already seems like ancient history, like many sports enthusiasts, I became engrossed in the recent Stanley Cup finals between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks. Televised ice hockey typically isn’t much of a draw for me, but two loosely related issues pulled me in. Early in the series it was mentioned that Tim Thomas, the star goalkeeper for the Bruins, was a graduate of the University of Vermont, so I was eager to see how a player with strong ties to Vermont fared on the international stage. Needless to say, Thomas did very well, leading Boston to victory and earning recognition as the Most Valuable Player of the championship series.
I also had a soft spot in my heart for Vancouver because that city had done such a remarkable job hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. My wife, Kay, and I spent a wonderful week at the Olympics, which included the very exciting, early round, ice hockey matchup of Team USA and the host Canadians. A small group of us in red, white, and blue were engulfed by a sea of red and white maple leaves, many of whom were amply fueled by Molsons and Labatts. At one point during the game, as the young guys behind us returned from the concession stand with yet more refreshment, one of our group bravely turned and requested that the beer didn’t end up all over us. The Canadians laughed heartily.
As you may recall, that first cross-border matchup of the 2010 Olympics ended in a victory for the USA, thanks in large part to the heroics of the American goalie. As we filed from our seats, I risked a subdued comment to the stunned Canadian fans a row behind us, “Sorry about the final score, but it was a hell of a hockey game.”
“Aw, don’t worry about it mate,” came the immediate response, “we’ll get you in the gold medal round.” Which of course, they did, in dramatic fashion.
It was especially because of this memory, that I was so disappointed to learn about the violence and mayhem that followed the final Stanley Cup game in Vancouver. For several hours, the streets were filled with raging people who clashed with police, looted stores, and started fires. The frustration and disappointment of having the Stanley Cup snatched from their grasp so close to victory may have been the catalyst for the violence that followed, but a frightening example of mob mentality quickly took over.
I have experienced that type of outrageous behavior in other sporting events. At the 1974 World Biathlon Championships in Minsk, then part of the Soviet Union, the hosting Russian team had done poorly in the opening events. Their chance for redemption, in front of an estimated 120,000 fanatic, local fans, was to defeat the arch-rival Finns in the relay. The first three skiers from each team battled it out on the shooting range, and the ski tracks kept the outcome in question until the final leg. The Soviet hero, Aleksandr Tikhonov, matched strides and shots with Finland’s anchor, Heikki Ikola, until the final stage of shooting when Tikhonov got to the skiing loop first. Those were the days of sticky, klister wax for icy or warming snow conditions. The course was lined with Soviet spectators. As soon as their hero passed, they threw pine and spruce needles onto the tracks to sabotage Ikola’s skis. After the race, Heikki confided to me, “Today, I would have feared for my life if I had won.”
In contrast, I have another vivid memory, this one from the ’94 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. The hosting Norwegians consider skiing as much a part of their heritage as the Vikings, and they had been preparing their athletes to succeed at Lillehammer for a decade. But as the Games unfolded, some of the Norwegian spectators and officials feared that they had overdone it. I remember being asked by concerned Norwegians if other countries might think that the host team was hogging the medals.
The Olympic men’s cross-country relay had been a recurring battle between the Italians and the Norwegians, often resulting in a photo finish after 40 kilometers of racing. In Lillehammer, more than 100,000 passionate, Norwegian fans screamed the two anchormen toward the line, then fell totally silent, uncertain which athlete had finished first. When the Italians were declared the winners, the Norwegian crowd remained stunned for a few seconds, then they roared their approval of one of the most exciting races they would ever see.