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Reflected in Olympic gold, Canada sees itself as one

February 28, 2010 | 11:31 pm

As I made the 15-minute walk back from the U.S.-Canada hockey game to the main press center on Sunday evening, with the raucous celebration of Canada's victory all around me, I saw something that touched my heart.

Walking toward me were three little boys, each about 8 years old, one black, one of Asian heritage, one white.

They were all humming, "O Canada."

At the risk of romanticizing a brief moment in time, I will say it was an example of the power of sport as a unifying force.

Even if it lasts only as long as the aftermath of victory, or as long as the hangover following victory, it still is better than not experiencing it at all.

(A word about hangovers: During the middle weekend on the games, the street parties International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge cited as an example of "the communion between the city and the Games" turned into a gross combination of girls gone wild and thousands of drunken frat boys, causing officials to cut off liquor store sales at 7 p.m. two nights.  But the city's stunningly gentle police kept real ugliness from breaking out.)

Certainly, it seems that the stated goal of Vancouver OIympic organizers to use the 2010 Games as a motivation for Canadians to feel a national identity has succeeded.  From a torch relay that covered 28,000 miles and went to places where there aren't places, to the hyperbolic reaction over every Canadian medal by both print and TV reporters, Canadians expressed both pride and chauvinism publicly in ways they always had seemed hesitant to do.

Sunday night, I saw a Sikh with a small Canadian flag stuck in his turban.

I saw Canadians of Korean, Japanese, Filipino and Caribbean ancestry with red maple leafs painted on their faces.

Late night newscasts Sunday showed similarly varied faces in celebrations all across Canada.  Feb. 28 may be declared a national holiday.

If these Olympics have created a sense of inclusiveness in an ever more diverse Canadian society (and nowhere is that wondrous diversity more evident than Vancouver), that has to be a good thing -- as long as it did not end when the flame went out Sunday night.

Yes, nationalism can be a dangerous thing. But I never felt the Canadians were cheering their victories because it meant bitter rivals had lost.  It was more an expression of joy for their own.

Another moment that touched me: the congratulatory roar from a hockey audience that was about 95%  Canadian when the U.S. team began to receive its medals Sunday.

Some owed to the fans' appreciation for having been given a hockey game of extraordinary intensity, hard checking, deft passing, gut-check defensive effort (Patrick Kane chasing down Sidney Crosby on a breakaway!) and unbearable tension.

And some clearly owed to the realization that Team USA was 50%  responsible for all of the above.

Maybe that's why those three little boys humming their national anthem sounded as if they were in perfect three-part harmony.

-- Philip Hersh from Vancouver, Canada

Photo: A diverse Canadian crowd celebrates Sunday's hockey win.  Credit: Mark Ralston / Getty Images