In proroguing Parliament until after the Vancouver Games, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives clearly saw the Olympics as their path towards greener pastures. The outpouring of national pride, went the thinking, could not help but trickle up towards the Prime Minister, who despite having little, if any, direct responsibility for the performance of our athletes would somehow find himself basking in the affection of the Canadian people. Out of sight and out of mind then, the Afghan detainee scandal and his government’s apparent cover-up. Not the slightest concern, the Conservatives’ obstructionist record on climate change. Long forgotten and forgiven, his second annual shuttering of the elected legislature to escape that pesky accountability thing. All are but tedious sideshows after all, when set against the honour and glory of Team Canada’s conquests.
The exploitation of the Olympic Games for political messaging is by no means a Conservative innovation. Early on in the history of the modern Games, begun in 1896, authoritarian leaders saw the potential for the Games to be used as a podium for the most monumental of propaganda campaigns. None perhaps can match the audacity of Adolf Hitler’s Summer Games in 1936, during which the supposed racial superiority of the “Aryan” people was put on display with the help of renowned German filmmaker-turned-Nazi-propagandist Leni Reifenstahl. This case, along with the 1980 Summer Olympics, hosted by the Soviets in Moscow, are obviously two of the most extreme instances of Olympic euphoria being harnessed to stir patriotism and rally the people behind a government’s ideology. To be clear, no one is suggesting that Stephen Harper, while undoubtedly autocratic, is either a Hitler or a Leonid Brezhnev. And yet, one would think that the history of the Games just described would make any democratic government extremely wary of trying to manipulate the spirit of the Games for political gain. Shock of all shocks, this wouldn’t seem to be the case with this government, which seems to spend so much time obsessed by tactics and spin that they forget why they ever wanted to govern in the first place.
It should come as no surprise then that midway through the Games, the Conservative Party launched a video campaign to supporters aimed at capitalizing on the Olympic jubilation sweeping the country. (Patriotism equals Conservative after all, or didn’t we get that memo?) In the video spot, we see former Olympian Nancy Greene and former broadcaster Mike Duffy, both recently appointed Conservative senators, waxing patriotic about Canada’s athletes competing against the world’s best. All thanks, we are gratefully informed, to the Conservatives, glory be unto them. The “Conservative story” is “Canada’s story” after all, Mike Duffy helpfully reminds us (how ungrateful of us to forget!) while the Conservatives are apparently “champions in [their] own right” – whatever that’s supposed to mean. If you’re still standing following the dense odours of testosterone wafting from the screen, you can even hear Nancy Greene offering her admirable insights on the successes of Canada’s Olympic contenders, pointing out what indeed needs little pointing out, namely that Canada’s performance is all due to one man, glory be unto him: “our strong leader,” Stephen Harper.
Well thanks for that, Nancy Greene.
And thank you, Dear Leader. Thank you.