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Scott Russell - Friday Feb. 7, 2014 13:46

Sochi Olympics all about teamwork

Opening ceremony highlights the collective 'family of athletes'

Olympic cauldron in Sochi, Russia
Scott Russell writes that there is an overarching theme playiong out at the Sochi Games while the Olympic cauldron, pictured, is lit. (Scott Russell/CBC)

The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is something that makes you think.

In my case, I pause to wonder at the improbability of it all.

This is a mysterious sea coast town in the south of Russia which is audaciously welcoming athletes from around the world. In this locale, palm trees and snowy mountain peaks co-exist in remarkable proximity.

This is an Olympic host community of alarming contrasts.

There are tens of thousands of people who've arrived here having never heard of Sochi and who've also been warned that they should be wary of this place, the motives of its most visible leaders, and effectively fear for their personal safety.

This is, after all, the former Soviet Union and someone of my generation might never have imagined this eventuality occurring during the course of a lifetime

Still, against all the odds and in spite of the impediments, we are here in Russia and the action is about to begin. I've learned to listen to the eloquence of the athletes on this matter and to measure what the central characters of the Olympic story are saying.

It seems to me, there’s an overarching theme at work as the cauldron ignites. The athletes have foreshadowed what we all hope transpires over the course of the next 17 days. While they are individuals each with personal ambitions they, almost without fail, talk about the collective when asked to explain what they find most attractive about the Olympic experience.

Listen to what they say.

“We feel we are part of the greater team,” said champion ice dancer Scott Moir. “Ultimately we’re here to fight for a gold medal but my message to the first-time athletes here is that they have a chance to live their Olympic moment.”

'Over-quarantined ourselves'

Jan Hudec is a veteran alpine skier who is approaching his second Olympics. Although one of his events happens two days after the ceremony, he vowed not to make the same mistake he made in Vancouver at the home Games.

"I think there we over-quarantined ourselves," Hudec said.  "We didn’t enjoy the experience of the Olympic spirit as much as we could have."

And the record shows the highly touted Canadian skiers came away from Whistler without any medals at all. Hudec, Erik Guay and Manuel Osborne-Paradis are hoping that this time will be different as they embrace their role as team players.

"We’re walking with modern day superheroes and it doesn’t get much better than that,” enthused ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver.

Weaver was born an American but came to Canada to skate with Andrew Poje only to narrowly miss qualifying for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. As it is with his partner, the precious chance to be a member of the Olympic team is not lost on Poje.

"There is the knowledge that the dream you had as a child is coming to fruition," he said.  "I just can’t wait for the initial announcement as we march in as one group of united athletes."

March in they did.

All of the great Canadian athletes were there, Charles Hamelin the short track speed skater, Kaillie Humphries, the world bobsleigh champion, skiing hopeful Guay, Patrick Chan of figure skating, all led by three-time gold medallist and hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser.

"We're so connected to Russia,”" said Tessa Virtue, an Olympic champion figure skater. "We have a wonderful fan base here and this place has been so welcoming."

'One big family of athletes'

At these Olympic Winter Games there will be nearly 3000 competitors from 90 countries.

That’s the largest gathering of its kind in history.

And there will also be more team events than ever before with the inclusion of figure skating’s four-discipline prize, the luge relay and the mixed biathlon race.

It seems for now, at these Games, everyone is trumpeting a similar message. Individual glory counts but the success of the larger group is what matters most.

"'When you're here you become Canada' is what Clara Hughes once said," Kaitlyn Weaver recalled. "But we're walking into that stadium as one big family of athletes."

That's the thing about taking to the Olympic field of play on the first day of the Games. For a brief, beautiful, moment everyone plays for the same team.

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