What Canadian Olympians can teach us about freedom

Flag bearers Charles Hamelin and Marie-Philip Poulin of Team Canada carry their flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Flag bearers Charles Hamelin and Marie-Philip Poulin of Team Canada carry their flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

If sports are a mirror of the times, let us learn something from the 215 Canadians in Beijing.

Members of Canada's largest delegation in Winter Olympics history marched side by side into Beijing National Stadium on Friday as part of the Games' opening ceremony. It’s rightfully a moment of triumph, pride and patriotism. But it’s also underscored by the struggles and concessions that made it all possible amid a deadly virus and social instability.

As Canada experiences a time of political divisiveness in which the word “freedom” has become so saturated it’s almost impossible to define, Canadian athletes displaying unity on the world stage are a pulsating reminder of the Tolkien-esque saying: “there’s no victory without loss, no freedom without sacrifice.”

Take for example Damian Warner, the Canadian gold-medal decathlon winner in the Tokyo Olympics, speaking about the challenges of competing at his highest level in the middle of a deadly global pandemic.

“When I look back on it, when I’m a little bit older, I think it’s going to mean that much more knowing that we persevered through all those hard circumstances,” Warner told the CBC. “It’s a testament to the team that I have around me and the community that I’ve built here.”

It was just Warner on the track when he completed each of the 10 events in Tokyo that earned him a place in history. Yet, he remembers those moments in first person plural. It’s likely that when Charles Hamelin or Marie-Philip Poulin recall bearing the flag in this year’s opening ceremony, they’ll also think of it as a “we” rather than an “I.” Because although each Canadian athlete is an individual bringing their personal strengths to the forefront at an elite level, the collective concept of a “Team Canada” seems to be what drives them forward.

"Going into my fifth Olympic Games, it is really incredible,” the 37-year-old Hamelin said of the honour of being named flag-bearer and representing his compatriots on the Olympic stage. “For me, that family is one of the biggest reasons why I'm still here and why I love what I do.”

Olympic athletes, as a rule, don’t have much control over their day-to-day lives. Elite sports require strict and specific routines, diets, interactions and mindsets. All of that, in many cases, without any guarantee that the activity will ever provide enough income to make a living. The sacrifice starts as soon as that career choice is made.

Now, in addition to those inherent restrictions, Olympians have to comply with uncomfortable mandates intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Canadian Olympic Committee was quick to impose a vaccine ruling for its winter athletes, and even the fully vaccinated competitors face isolation until their PCR test comes back negative, as well extreme movement restrictions throughout the Games. Masks are as much a part of the uniform as their sleek Lululemon coats.

All of this to preserve human life.

But even through the endless hurdles, the excitement is palpable. When it was officially announced that, despite COVID, this edition of the Games would go on – albeit with all of those safety measures in place – Warner had this to say:

“From an athlete’s standpoint, I’m extremely happy that they’re going to be able to go there and represent their country. Because I do think that there’s a power in sport, and I do think that they can go there and represent our country and make us all proud.”

It's hard to be proud of our current reality outside of sport. In the past week, the country watched what started as a truckers' protest against vaccine mandates, titled "Freedom Rally," become a show of violence, intolerance and racism. Extreme right-wing groups defaced statues and intimidated passersby while carrying Nazi and Confederate symbols in Canada's capital. All of it was done under the guise of protecting individual rights as a way of maintaining "freedom."

Setting aside the absurdity of claiming to be in favour of freedom while waving the Confederate flag, the whole premise of the protest seems questionable from the start. To draw from another old saying, "freedom isn't free." Individual concessions have always been part of maintaining collective rights, from wartime food rationing to vaccine and mask mandates. There's no freedom without sacrifice.

Just ask the Canadian competitors who were just put through the wringer and now happily march together as they get ready to represent their country.

“There’s no better feeling," said Poulin about playing for the Canadian women's hockey team. "So, knowing that I’ll wear that jersey, it’s something that I love to do. Sometimes it’s not easy, I’m not gonna lie. But I love it.”

If Team Canada is a mirror of its nation, let us learn from their unity and resilience.

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