By Joshua Benton
SALT LAKE CITY – When it appeared two Canadian figure skaters would have to unfairly settle for silver instead of gold, the reaction was swift. At least in the checkout lines of the official Canadian Olympic clothing store here.
“Americans were coming in saying, ‘You were robbed! We need a hat! We need a scarf! We need to support you!'” said the store’s assistant manager, Lisa Osachoff.
Canada and the United States share the world’s longest undefended boundary, but that hasn’t stopped them from occasionally eyeing each other warily. Americans worry about immigration standards across the 49th parallel. Canadians worry that Americans know nothing about their country beyond Alan Thicke and Celine Dion.
But these Olympics have brought the two countries together like little else in recent history.
“The Americans certainly supported our skaters when they needed it,” said Vancouver native Pete Holtkamp. “They almost adopted them.”
Osachoff said that about 70 percent of the Canadian gear she sells goes to American customers. That percentage has increased ever since last week’s pairs skating controversy, in which cute Canadian couple Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were denied gold by suspect judging.
“America’s a very patriotic country,” said Osachoff, a Calgary native. “So I think it’s great that there are all these Americans walking around with ‘Canada’ across their chest.”
Kari Albert of Reno, Nev., split the difference Friday: while standing in line to buy Canadian shirts, she wore a blue “USA 2002″ baseball cap.
“We love the merchandise,” she said. “I think there’s the whole North America against the rest of the world mentality.”
Of course, there could be another factor at work: the red letter-jacket style of Canadian outfits are quite fetching, arguably better looking than their blue American counterparts. (Conspiracy theorists take note: both the Canadian and American gear was designed by Toronto-based Roots.) And all the media attention given to Sale and Pelletier – always decked out in their official Canadian swag – increased interest in the clothes.
But some Canadians found the support heartening, whether it’s geopolitical or color-coordinated.
“I think if the American media hadn’t raised a stink about [Sale and Pelletier], nothing would have happened,” said Nancy Uy, a Canadian citizen now living in suburban Salt Lake City. “It would have been ‘Too bad, so sad.’ Americans supported us.” But she notes that, had it been an American pair who had won the contested gold medal over the Canadians, “I doubt they would have reacted the same way.”
“We usually root for the U.S. if there aren’t any Canadians in the running,” her husband Anthony Uy said. (Their 13-month-old son Cooper is a dual citizen, although Tuesday his only external sign of national allegiance was a red-and-white maple-leaf pullover.)
Last week, when Canadian James Chambers started an online effort to make surrogate gold medals for Sale and Pelletier, almost a quarter of the emails he received were from America. “The response from our friends in the States has been incredible,” he said. “The typical American response was, ‘Is this a Canadian
project, or can Americans contribute too?'”
Everything seemed to be going great – that is, until hockey legend Wayne Gretzky poured a little cold water on the continental lovefest Monday. Gretzky, dealing with Team Canada’s disappointing 1-1-1 record, lashed out at the team’s critics, calling their jibes “American propaganda.”
“They’re loving us not doing well,” said Gretzky, an American resident since 1988. “I don’t think we dislike those other countries as much as they hate us. They don’t like us, they want to see us fail, they love beating us.”
Canada: focus of American hatred?
“Well, if it’s the U.S. against Canada in the gold medal game in hockey, I’m rooting for the Americans,” Albert said. “No question.”