They stood along the side of Yonge Street like idle panhandlers who forgot to keep their palms extended. The crowds are sparse south of Dundas, with people gathered in small groups, staking out prime sidewalk real estate. The streets are washed with the glow of streetlights, Christmas decorations, and neon signs that flash brighter and more erratically as you travel north. The Cannon Theatre looks a little classy, and the Eaton Centre stands as a surprising beacon of good taste amidst dollar stores, bargain-basement electronics depots, and sexual paraphernalia outlets. Video billboards take over the landscape as you near Yonge-Dundas square; I pass one that’s promoting either perfume or softcore pornography.
It may seem a strange location for the Olympic Torch relay, but it couldn’t be more fitting.
I should have known something was up as I passed Nathan Phillips Square, which held more people and police than on most nights. The crowds on Yonge revived my memory: The Torch was passing through Toronto. And while my initial reaction to the news had been one of casual indifference, seeing the event in action was something else completely.
It’s not like I’m opposed to the Olympics. I like sports, generally, and think people who slide down an icy chute at 100 km/hr on a skateboard are pretty cool. I understand, and even agree with, the issues some people have with the Olympics, but it’s not something I feel terribly strongly about.
I don’t even mind Yonge Street that much. It’s gross and tacky and usually pretty dirty, but, hey, it’s Toronto. I love my city. It’s still better than Scarborough.
But sometimes, things just come together in a way that makes you want to throw up. It probably doesn’t help that it feels like I’ve been hearing about the Vancouver Olympics for most of my life; while regular Olympic hype can be overwhelming, Olympic hype in the host country is even more omnipresent. I have immense respect for athletes who train for their entire lives to become the best in the world at a sport, but considerably less interest in listening to their reminiscences of childhood or their favourite hats as someone else tries to sell me a savings account or a new pair of shoes.
So I was already prepared to be sick of the torch. The torchbearers didn’t exactly help: Ivan and Jason Reitman. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. I’m a big fan of the Reitmans’ work – Ghostbusters and Juno alone earn them my respect – but neither one conjures thoughts of Olympic competition. They’ve never even made a sports movie, let alone competed in anything. At least they’re more-or-less Canadian; I don’t know what Kumar has to do with anything, other than attracting crowds. Karen Kain probably makes sense, given that she was probably as athletic in her prime as most Olympic athletes.
Maybe I’m not cynical enough. Maybe it’s ridiculous that I think of the Olympics as anything more than a marketing extravaganza, an orgy of branding, product placement, and real estate development. Maybe I miss being a kid – I remember the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, how exciting it was, how I didn’t have the experience or sense to think about all the political and commercial factors.
But I like my dreams, my ideals, my optimism. I like the idea of the Olympics as a great sporting event, a time for people from all across the world to come together and celebrate the best athletes in the world.
Watching crowds gather in the artificial glow of electronic billboards to see a Hollywood director run down the street carrying a flaming cola advertisement is a good way to have your optimism punched in the face.