There’s a reason we come, despite the nonsense. There’s a reason we come to the Olympics still, every two years now, despite the fact that sometimes you get William Shatner or the odd, massive inflatable moose. What with all the overdone stagecraft and security hassles, the butt-covering parsing of words or the smugness of IOC officials who speak of an “Olympic movement” that never moves quite far enough when it comes to abuses committed under those oh-so-hallowed rings, it’s easy to forget.

But the reason rises most clearly, every time, at the end.

It rises during the closing ceremony, at the moment when stagecraft fades and the simplest of human acts begins. The athletes walk in.

That’s it: They walk into some stadium, as they did again Sunday evening at Vancouver’s B.C. Place to end the 2010 Winter Games, and the clearest picture of what the Olympics meansemerges. Young people who have spent the months serving as civic heroes, national symbols, stand-ins for millions, become young again. Unlike the opening ceremony tradition of marching in national delegations in strict order, under a flag, at the closing men and women who have sweated against each other for weeks, sometimes years, walk out in an easy jumble, and soon mix, stand and dance until all national colors and flags become irrelevant.

It happened again Sunday. There the athletes were, smaller and more real suddenly, snapping pictures like tourists, waving to cameras — “Hi, Mom!” — milling aimlessly, mashed together in the most accomplished mosh pit in history. Canadians, Americans, Russians, Finns: all the stiffness, posing, pre-competition jitters was gone, dissolved in a moment of pure fun. There’s nothing else like it in sports.

We didn’t get that in Beijing. Organizers at the 2008 Summer Games ran a minutely-controlled and choreographed farewell that looked great on TV, but killed any hint of spontaneity; the athletes were all but herded into pens. But Canada is no China; it’s the land of half the world’s great comedians. When a faux-repairman, giant screwdriver on his belt, kicked off Sunday’s festivities by “fixing” the same arm of the cauldron that so infamously failed to rise at the opening ceremony, allowing speedskating legend Catriona Le May Doan to finish the torch-lighting ceremony she missed a fortnight ago, we knew we were in good hands. Nothing is so endearing — and rare — as an Olympic host that can laugh at itself.

Then again, Canada could afford such looseness. The same Olympics that had begun with disaster, with the death of a 21-year old Georgian luger on the morning of the opening ceremony, and spent its early days focused on weather problems, a massive ticket cancellation, and the seeming underperformance of Canada’s Olympians, had ended in triumph.

A late surge by Canadian speedskaters and curlers pushed the host nation to a best-ever medals showing at a Winter Olympics, and the ice hockey team’s rapture-inducing, overtime victory over the U.S. Sunday pushed Canada to its 14th gold medal, the most ever won by any country at a Winter Games. Coming in, Canada had spent $110 million on athlete support and vowed to “Own the Podium” by winning the overall medal count. It didn’t come close. But after Kid Canada, Sidney Crosby, scored the golden goal in overtime, it didn’t matter a bit to anyone north of the 49th parallel.

“Alexandre,” VANOC Chief John Furlong, said during his speech to moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, “your first gold medal gave us all permission to feel like and behave like champions. Our last one will be remembered for generations.”

Furlong’s delivery may have been stilted, but the response was not. The crowd of 60,600 rose to its feet, unscripted, and stopped his closing speech cold for a good minute, cheering the biggest win in Canadian hockey history. Such chesty flagwaving was seen across Vancouver and Canada throughout these games, but hit new levels in the aftermath of the hockey win — horns beeping, men hugging, a once-shy country openly reveling in its success.

“That quiet, humble national pride we were sometimes reluctant to acknowledge seemed to take to the streets as the most beautiful kind of patriotism broke out all across our country,” Furlong said. “So many new and dazzling applications for the Maple Leaf.”

But other flags had their moments in Vancouver, too. Norway, a country of just 4.7 million, finished fourth in the medal count with 23, and produced the most accomplished male athlete in cross-country skier Petter Northug, who finished with two golds, one silver and one bronze medal. The USA’s 37 medals set a record for success at a Winter Games, and came amid the most controversy-free American performance in decades. With skier Bode Miller redeeming his cavalier performance in Turin, Team USA kept as low a profile as an athletic superpower can, predicting no wins, displaying no arrogance, celebrating with class. It was a switch no one predicted: The Canadians acted more like out-there Yanks, and the Americans acted like humble Canucks. And it helped set, for these games, a graceful tone.

Indeed, though the first official response to the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili — both VANOC and the international luge federation placed the blame on the 21-year old Georgian while making adjustments to the wall, ice and start of the notoriously fast track — was both cold and absurd, the remainder of the 2010 Olympics was all but free of controversy. For the first time since the bombings of Sept. 11, an Olympics went off without terrorism casting a pervasive shadow, without the intrusion — if you except Canada’s genial border “war” with the USA — geopolitical themes of any kind. Unlike Beijing or history-laden Athens, these were a Seinfeld Olympics, about nothing, really, except great competition.

“These were,” declared a visibly relieved IOC president, Jacques Rogge, “excellent and very friendly games.”

That should be the case for the Summer Games in London in two years, but 2014 is already taking on curious dimensions. Like the Chinese did with the Summer Games, Vladimir Putin‘s government has made clear that it plans to use the Winter Olympics in Sochi as a coming-out party for the new Russia. No shock there, but it does assume the task with far less momentum than Beijing. Team Russia, after all, was the most glaring disappointment in Vancouver, its 15 medals (three gold), a steep decline from the 22 it took home from Turin. Meanwhile, its most popular star in the West, hockey player Alex Ovechkin, came into Vancouver an Olympic hero for claiming he’d play in Sochi even if the NHL didn’t release its players — and went out in shame.

Not only did Ovechkin fail to produce during Russia’s ghastly 7-3 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals, but he also shelved his usually gregarious personality in Vancouver and proved a gloomy, surly presence, snubbing the media and shoving to the ground one eager fan with a YouTube ready camcorder. Of course, when he popped up onstage Sunday night, Ovechkin was all smiles again, posing as one of Sochi’s welcome ambassadors with three cute children, and lending athletic, gap-toothed form to Churchill’s famous formulation about Russia — “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

Canada — its people, its athletes, its lovely host city — was hardly that the last two weeks. The country made itself known. Here’s betting that, come 2014, it will be missed.

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