'Twas Golden Summer For Canada ... Sort of

World's fastest man waves the maple leaf. But hockey loss, politics sour the mood.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It was a crazy-quilt sports-and-politics summer for Canada, a too-short warm spell that one newspaper called a "season to forget" because the weather was "too wet, too cloudy, too cool."

Yet there are several reasons for Canadians to remember - as well as forget - the summer of 1996.

First on the list of forgettables was Team Canada's loss of its hockey crown to the United States Sept. 16 at the World Cup championship.

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"Woe Canada," moaned one Toronto headline, reflecting the bewilderment of a nation long accustomed to dominating its national sport. Canadians knew they had a strong competitor in the American team but fully expected their boys to win. It didn't happen.

No less an authority than hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, who played for Canada, described his homeland as "a crushed country." The Canadian rap on US hockey players had long been that the Americans lacked the kind of "grit" needed to get to the top. But American player Bill Guerin, a native of Massachusetts who plays for the New Jersey Devils, was both gritty and gracious in victory. "You have to beat the best to be the best," he said. "I think we did."

To some Americans, hockey may be just another notch on the belt of US sports preeminence. But in the eyes of Canadians, Americans are conveniently forgetting that the shoe was recently on the other foot.

Especially if that foot and shoe belong to Donovan Bailey, Canada's Olympic 100-meter sprint champion, the "fastest man in the world." In Atlanta, Mr. Bailey blew by all comers - including some touted Americans.

American pride suffered an even worse indignity when Bailey proceeded to help the Canadian 4 x 100-meter relay team whip past the Americans to the gold in an event the US had dominated since 1912.

Yet somehow, amid the advertising hype that descended on Olympic double gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson, Americans seem to have forgotten that Bailey owns the title "world's fastest man."

On returning to Canada from his Austin, Texas, training camp last month, Bailey was asked by reporters about recent US advertisements touting Mr. Johnson - who trains near Bailey in Dallas - as the world's fastest man. "He's not even the fastest man in Texas," Bailey quipped. "He runs the 200 meters."

While buoyed by Olympic triumphs, Canada's summer was taxed by its politicians. Usually pols go off to a lakefront cottage to mull over constitutional issues, Quebec nationalism, and American jingoism. Unfortunately, this year they seemed eager to keep the heat on.

Prime Minister Jean Chrtien sparred with US Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina all summer over a new US law (known as the Helms-Burton law) that penalizes Canadian companies for doing business with Cuba. And Quebec's separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard and Mr. Chrtien traded jibes over a provincial court case in which Quebec's "right" to secede from Canada was supposedly on trial.

As if to make a point about who's in charge in Quebec, July saw Quebec's nettlesome linguistic nellies - the "language police" - reemerge after several years' hiatus. Once again Montreal shopkeepers can be ticketed if their signs do not comply with provincial language laws requiring French words to have letters twice the size of English words.

In other words, Canada's summer was transformed by cool weather and fuming pols into something that closely resembled ... the rest of the year.

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