There is no better visual representation of the chasm that lies between life’s winners and losers than a medal ceremony after Canada plays the United States in an Olympic hockey final.
Thursday’s game had been one of ludicrous swings. Canada had it won. The U.S. tied it at the end. The overtime was mayhem. The shootout had its own overtime. Then, after 20 years, the Americans were Olympic champions again.
News photographers have a shorthand for sports’ two post-championship polarities – “jubo” (for jubilation) and “dejection.” For the gold-medalists of the United States, it was pure bliss. For Canada, an utter, complete dejection.
Everywhere at the Olympics, people are losing. Some are losing in awful ways – falling over at the end, making one terrible error, cheated by an opponent. But none seem to suffer it the same way as the team that loses this game.
Later, Canada’s Brigette Lacquette – her face so swollen and reddened by disappointment she looked ill – was asked if in time she might come to be proud of a silver. Lacquette stared blankly for an uncomfortably long beat, and then smirked.
“Maybe with time,” she said – meaning quite definitely not, with any amount of time.
Jocelyne Laroque was the third Canadian to receive her second-place medal. She took it off as if it was hot. Jillian Saulnier was crying so hard that dipping her head to accept hers was a difficulty. Meghan Agosta, a Vancouver cop, assumed a thousand-yard stare and accepted her punishment.
Ten yards away, the U.S. players hopped in place as they waited for their prizes. Former U.S. hockey player and current IOC member Angela Ruggiero, one of the last Americans to experience this feeling, handed them out. Every medal came with an embrace. Depending on your national perspective, it was either an especially poignant or especially cruel touch.
The emotions were running so high on the rink that several members of the Finnish team – trucked in to accept their bronze medals a full day after winning them – burst into tears.
Then on to the world’s most painfully cordial handshake line. The two teams spend four years preparing for these three hours, absolutely certain they would meet each other and that their lives will be defined by so doing.
So there was not going to be a rapprochement now. A few quick half-hugs, a great many slaps on the shoulder. It was not bitter or angry. Those ideas are too passionate. It was a brief emotional blank. Neither wanted to give anything of themselves to the other.
You could see some of them thinking, “Forty-seven months, 17 days and a few hours.” That’s how long until they do it again.
The losers left to cry some more, and the winners stayed around to claim ownership of the rink.
At this point, the team was forced to break up into individual units and try not to explain how they felt. Some had better luck at it than others.
Goaltender Shannon Szabados carried Canada through the third period and overtime. She was also the person whose picture you will see years from now, sprawled helplessly on the ice as Jocelyne Lamoureux-Morando wraps the winning penalty shot around her.
Szabados was trying to channel the first person, the hockey player who can handle the tough breaks. She even laughed, if morbidly.
Then someone asked her about the injuries she has been trying to keep secret all year long and still won’t fully explain. Then she became the second person – the one who’d lost.
Her face crumpled. A PR flack standing behind her tried to help, but did not want to go so far as to touch her. Too intimate at this moment.
“Yeah, I played three games before I came here, so …,” Szabados said and began to weep.
“Take your time,” the flack said consolingly. “You don’t have to say what you don’t want to.”
Then, in a child’s voice, “There’s a couple of different injuries … It was hard not be there for the girls all year, and then come down to the wire like this and not walk away with the gold medal.”
In a professional context, you’d keep pressing. Injuries? What? Tell us about that. That’s what people usually want to know after the hockey game – the what happened and why. Or better yet, who’s to blame? Who’s angry? Who said what about whom?
But in this context, with so much wretched sadness coming over the barrier at you, it seemed pornographic. Everyone stopped. Szabados stood there for a moment, pawing at her face, not sure what to do. Then someone gave her permission to leave and she wandered away.
Meghan Agosta was one of the last Canadians out. She still had that same hard look she’d had during the ceremony, like she’d shut herself off to this experience the instant it soured.
As she talked, the first of the Americans, coach Robb Stauber, entered. They handed him a microphone. He started speaking and Agosta stopped. He was saying the things winners say, things about “process” and “believing in ourselves.” He sounded as if he was reading from a self-help manual.
Agosta stuck to the same sort of script, but the loser’s one.
“We need to be proud of ourselves and hold our heads high,” she said.
That is the expected line these days – “hold our heads high.” Sport is the last place where people feel they need to express shame in loss.
But each of us loses. It is the most familiar thing to us non-super humans about an Olympics – watching other people experience in large, public ways what each of us go through in small, private ones. It’s the great Olympic leveller.
Yes, it’s a shame Canada lost, but there is no shame in it.
During the medal ceremony, Canada’s best player, Marie-Philip Poulin, received her medal with the most equanimity. She scored the game’s second goal. Had Canada held on, it would have been her third winner in a final in as many tries.
That would have put her right there with Paul Henderson. She was six minutes from mythology and … poof.
Poulin had more reason than most to be gutted, but refused to. She smiled slightly as she got her medal, because that’s the polite thing to do.
“When we take a step back and know how proud we made Canadians, we’re going to realize what we did.”
While she spoke, the Americans began jogging through behind her, chewing on their gold medals for anyone who held up a phone. Poulin tried to pretend she didn’t notice. It was so hard to watch that it was perfect.
One presumes they will continue to broadcast this game in future, but they ought not. To really do it justice, they might have some Flemish master paint it. Something that captures the way this feels, rather than just the way it looks.
The Globe and Mail, February 22, 2018