It’s no surprise that the Olympics are a sensory overload. Any time you bring together over 5500 athletes and officials from over 80 countries, together with 10,000 media members, 25,000 volunteers and hundreds of thousands of fans, “loud” is going to be understatement.
Add to that 86 sporting events – each viewed by thousands to tens of thousands of fans, broadcast on massive video screens at the events themselves and in public areas throughout Whistler and Vancouver, and accompanied by loud music and even louder fans – as well as hundreds of performance acts and free music concerts every evening. Cacophony.
Yet when I look back on the Olympics, the sound that I will most remember is the silence.
It was the silence riding up the lonely chairlift on dark, chilly mornings on my way to the Whistler Creekside press center, hours before the world’s top skiers were set to race. The silence would only end when I entered the center and heard the murmur of reporters and photographers from around the world settling in, saying hello and discussing the upcoming competition.
It was the hushed wind at Cypress Mountain as a snowstorm descended the day we went to ski Ladies’ Ski Cross – which were won by Whistler native Ashleigh McIver, who said the harsh conditions were like skiing at home. Because we’d chosen to skip the morning qualifiers and thus the mad rush, we were able to walk the 1km from the bus to the entrance in peace, taking in the view and watching the Olympic flags rustle in the breeze. They sounded like water flowing under glass.
It was the remarkable calm at the Alpine Skiing press center after the competition was over, the medals earned, and the post-event press conference completed. It was an astounding thing to see 400 journalists seated side by side in utter concentration, typing away on laptops to file stories for newspapers 3, 9, and 10 time zones away.
But the silence that was most striking was the day I went with my family to see the two-man bobsled at the Whistler Sliding Center.
It didn’t start out quiet. The Canadian team was ahead after the first run and the crowd was roaring. As the two man team prepared for their next run in their shiny red bobsled, people clapped, yelled, whistled, rang cowbells and blew horns.
As the sledders ran and jumped into the bobsled, and began swooshing down the track, they gathered ever more speed. At the first time check, they were ahead of the next team. At the second one, they were even farther ahead. The crowd was going wild.
Suddenly, just before the 180 degree arc at the fastest part of the track, where the crowd numbers are at their largest, the team misjudged a turn and the bobsled overturned.
In an instant, all noise — cowbells, horns, clapping – stopped.
We watched in shocked silence as the deep red sled whizzed by, upside down, in front of us, from left to right. It was as if the audience was afraid to breath.
It’s amazing how loud your thoughts can be when everything falls so suddenly silent around you. I remembered the fan who told us we’d just missed seeing the New Zealand bobsled that had tipped on its side, requiring course workers to clean blood off the track. I remembered the tragic lugist from Georgia.
I wondered, as we watched the upside-down bobsled race to the finish line and course assistants rush to the scene, what had happened. What were we witnessing? What gore were my children about to see?
The bobsled was turned upright and a silent eternity passed. Then one of the Canadian bobsledders stood up. The crowd cheered in nervous silence.
Then the second bobsledder stood up. The cheers were deafening… and welcome.