Great French-English Olympic divide
Antoine Valois-Fortier competing in Judo and Christine Girard competing in women's 63-kilogram weightlifting show off their bronze medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games, July 31, 2012. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)
The crumpled paper was tacked to the wall in the Main Press Centre at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, a not so gentle reminder that Canada is a country divided, in politics, in culture, and in sport.
The piece of paper was put up to tease, maybe mock the English language media — or maybe it was put there just to make a point.
It read: Medals by Quebec ... and then a number. Medals by the rest of Canada ... followed by a number.
And the paper stayed on the wall, as a division of sorts between where the English media worked and where the French media were assigned their seats in the Main Press Centre — but more than anything else, it was about bragging rights.
Well, our friends from Quebec — strange how life works out — are now our partners covering the Olympics for QMI Agency, and they’re taking more than a little pleasure in making sure we’re aware of what’s gone on so far at the London Games. It’s not so much a gentle reminder to them as part of their life. It’s serious. It’s important. And until the next medals are won at the Games, all that those of us who speak Canada’s other language can do is take the ribbing.
Here’s the thing: Canada has won four medals at the Olympics — all four of them won by athletes from Quebec. Three of the medals came Tuesday in the span of about an hour. All of them bronze, not exactly the colour of choice, but medals nonetheless.
Two pairs of synchronized divers. A judoka and a female weightlifter are the latest Canadians we need to know. We need to know them because coming into the Games, while those of us in English Canada talked about Mary Spencer and Adam van Koeverden and Simon Whitfield and Milos Raonic, in Quebec that doesn’t necessarily play.
They lead off with Emilie Heymans — she of the four medals in four Olympics — and hand off to Alexandre Despatie, coming back from concussion — and in between they can do a dance about the new medallists they have celebrated before: Antonine Valois-Fortier, the judoka; Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion, the syncro divers from 10 metres; Christine Girard, the weightlifter.
They know all those names in Quebec, where the culture of amateur sport — and let’s face it, the culture for all that is theirs — is vastly different from the rest of Canada.
It may, in fact, be why athletes from one province have outperformed athletes from the other nine provinces on a semi-regular basis at the Games. In truth, if you do the math, in most Olympics English Canada outperforms French Canada. But it shouldn’t be a competition, even though it has been deemed so by Quebec’s media and maybe its populace.
In fairness to this uncomfortable subject, most of us don’t look at it that way. Most of us are don’t care who wins, so long as it’s a Canadian. A medal is a medal is a medal — even when they come in synchronized diving.
It isn’t that way in Quebec. It is more territorial, more provincial, more about us vs. them, but even more than that, more about them.
Which has led to an entire subculture of athletic performance, a certain pressure that doesn’t exist in the rest of the country. In Quebec, young amateur athletes are followed from an early age, written about as though they are professional athletes, sponsored better, more public, and with that comes a certain expectation. In Quebec, they don’t have the luxury of being unknown. Long before he was an Olympic medal winner, Despatie was a household name in Quebec. There is also a sporting attitude in Quebec wherein they target sports — short track speed skating in the Winter, diving in the summer, for example — and succeed Olympics after Olympics in doing so. Before, Valois-Foster won his medal Tuesday, that last judo medal for Canada came from Nicholas Gill, who now coaches in Quebec. A culture of success breeds success. And if the Canadian Olympic Committee can take anything from these Games to date, it’s finding a way to duplicate what occurs in Quebec and applying it to the rest of Canada.
Toronto is home to almost a quarter of the country, yet historically has produced a small number of successful Olympians. Which only makes our media friends in Quebec chuckle all the more and act just a little superior.
They take a certain pride in their own that we could learn from. The medals are worth celebrating by Canadians, all Canadians, no matter what the language. We take pleasure in their wins: Will they take pleasure in ours?