My parents are the same way, and together we watched every single summer and winter Olympics, Wimbledon, Grand National, and every England football and rugby game ever played. (I never could get into watching golf or cricket, but my Dad can watch those games for days at a time). I have very fond memories of my Mum shouting "stop him, tackle him, KILL HIM!!!" at the English rugby team, of going to my first few Newcastle United games with my Dad, and of being allowed to stay up way past my bedtime on a school night to watch France play Brazil in the world cup, against my Mum's better judgement.
My love of sport continued when I left home. I remember the only girl on my corridor in halls of residence who had a TV cramming 12 people into her tiny room to watch England play Scotland in the six nations rugby. I remember Michael Owen scoring against Argentina, and hearing the cheer from every house on the street. I remember going to a pub in Glasgow with a Greek friend to see England beat Greece, and my friend not buying a single pint all night after all the Scots realised he was from the country playing England. I remember barely sleeping during the early stages of the 2002 FIFA world cup, choosing to watch the 11:30 pm, 1:30 am and 4:30 am games and then go to the beach to drink a coffee before work instead. (I slept between 6 pm and 11 pm. I do not recommend this).
I remember the sense of unity and common purpose from a living room or a bar or a stadium full of people supporting their team, collectively holding their breath before rising to their feet with a mighty cheer.
I moved to Vancouver on Superbowl Sunday, 2002. I flew through the States, and the American Airlines pilot provided frequent score updates over the intercom (with warnings to cover our ears if we didn't want to know). I didn't know the names of the teams and the players; I didn't understand the pilot's terminology; I was clueless as to the progress of the crucial Newcastle vs. Manchester United match that was also on that day.
I felt a long, long way from home.
The Salt Lake City winter Olympics started in the first week of my new job. I watched the events on TV on my lunch breaks, and found it to be a great way to break the ice and meet my new colleagues. I quickly realised that hockey is THE sport in this town, and that if I wanted to feel the familiar unifying power of sport in my new home, this was the one to follow.
Now, I really do not like being lost and confused in a sea of unfamiliar rules. I need to know what's happening, and why. I didn't have my own computer and therefore had no opportunity to read up on the rules of the game, but I picked up little bits and pieces between flat hunting and getting into my new project. I still couldn't follow the puck (too damn fast), but felt that I was ready to watch the gold medal game (Canada vs. USA) with my brand new flat mates.
Well, I was wrong.
About halfway through the second period, my new roomie couldn't take my questions ("How does the offside rule work? Which of these guys play for Vancouver? Why was that a penalty? What does icing mean?") anymore.
He threw me out to walk the streets.
Well, technically, he explained that this was too important a game to be spending so much time explaining the rules to a n00b, and suggested that I explore my new neighbourhood, with the beach as the ideal destination. "It's really nice down there, eh? Just think how you'd feel if this was the world cup of soccer with England playing and a Canadian asking you too many questions".
He had a point, and so I wandered through the eerily deserted streets to the beach. The sad-looking people clustered around a radio in Starbucks were astonished to see a customer, but understood when they heard my accent and laughed (but then sympathised) when they heard my story. I had the whole of Kits beach to myself, too, and really did have a very pleasant time in the sunshine.
Until suddenly, there was a roar...
Hundreds and thousands of people burst onto the streets! They were wearing Team Canada shirts, waving hockey sticks, and hollering at the top of their lungs! Six strangers hugged me within ten minutes! A guy dressed as a beaver in a hockey jersey was standing on his head in the middle of the road, kicking his feet in the air! I was handed a beer! Ten more people hugged me! We started jumping up and down and singing! The police arrived, and people high-fived them! We shut down traffic at a major intersection for over an hour!
Even though I didn't see the whole game, I will never forget my first ever Olympic hockey final in Canada. It was the first time I realised I was going to feel right at home in Vancouver.
Over the years I've learned the rules, the players, the terminology, and yes, I can now follow the puck. I've been to one or two Canucks games a year, a couple of Giants games, and (last week!) two Olympic hockey games. I've even operated the scoreboard and timer at a friend's amateur game. We watch games in living rooms and in bars, but almost always with friends. On a dark and miserable November Tuesday, there's nothing like getting together to watch a Canucks game on the TV. And when the playoffs or the Olympics are on, the whole city shuts down to watch.
I love this game.
On Friday, we watched Team Canada hang on by the skin of their teeth in the last few minutes against Slovakia. We groaned and sweated and gasped and swore and watched from behind our hands as the puck ricocheted around in our zone with five seconds left... four... three.. two... one... and then the whole room exploded in a cacophony of air horns, whistles, shouts, and cheers.
Today, we play the USA for the gold medal.
The 2010 winter Olympics have united this city like never before. The atmosphere on the streets is simply amazing; there's a positive energy in the air that even those of my friends who are hardened cynics, and were against the games until the day they started, have noticed and enjoyed. The city may well have changed - for the better - for good.
But really, it's all about the hockey. We have more gold medals than any other nation... but it's all about the hockey. Everything has been building towards, everyone has been waiting for, today's game, and if Canada wins, this place is going off.
The USA have already beaten us once, fair and square. BUT we didn't have Luongo in net for that one, and this time it's for all the marbles. The extra game against Germany seemed to help us gel as a team, and the comprehensive destruction of Russia in the quarter final was a beautiful thing to see. With all due respect to my American readers, you have a great team and an outstanding goalie, but this story has Hollywood Ending written all over it and I think the home team has the edge.
Unfortunately, almost my entire core group of friends was struck down by what was probably a norovirus this week. I'm taking forever to recover fully, and Mr E Man only just got sick yesterday, so the party will be more sober than expected. BUT we are all still hugely excited to get together at a friend's house and cheer for Canada at the top of our lungs. We might even hear the roar from the stadium through the window!
If we win, and if we're all feeling well enough, we'll do our best to join the party that is sure to break out on every street!
GO CANADA GO!