In Vancouver we had them for two days. We were afforded the undivided attention of the men and women who will go for gold while flying Canadian colours at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, now about nine months away.
These are high performance athletes who are used to expressing themselves on the field of play. They are competitors more given to walking the walk than talking the talk.
That said we as broadcasters and storytellers are in the business of building a connection between stars and the consumers of the Olympic product. We are all about branding sport and in the process creating an increased passion for an event which occurs once every four years.
But the athletes are essential to the equation because they are the ones who the Olympics, the greatest recurring spectacle on the face of the earth, cannot live without.
Still, we aren't satisfied to see them hard at work at their chosen careers. We ask them to pose for photographs and wear certain clothes which display the Maple Leaf prominently. We blow snow in their faces in giant-sized studios and have them wave flags.
They come to embody super men and women or at least our conception of that image. There's more than a little glitz and glitter in what we do to sell the Olympians to the Canadian public who are far less familiar with their exploits than say, NHL hockey players.
Style over substance
In a way, it's style over substance that comes to the fore in this kind of artificial situation. Still, the thing that goes along with the photo opportunity is the chance to actually speak to the Olympians and even for a fleeting moment understand the thought processes which guide them.
They are, without exception, bright, articulate and serious about their individual crafts. Not one of them begrudged us the time. They spoke longingly of wanting to connect with Canadians and have them appreciate what it takes to do what they do.
There is an understanding from each of them that they are privileged to live the Olympic life and must take nothing for granted.
"At the Olympics everyone is watching...not just skating fans but everyone," said wide-eyed, teenager Kaetlyn Osmond.
The national figure skating champion is approaching her first Games in Sochi, and won the right for Canada to have two female, singles skaters compete in Russia by virtue of a top-10 finish at her first senior world championships in London, Ont., in March.
"I'm in it for skating because I love to skate and I don't mind being the centre of attention," she deadpanned.
"You have to be selfish," claimed Alexandre Bilodeau. "We start as a team and we come together to get inspired, but when it comes time to compete you do it for yourself."
Bilodeau, you'll recall, became the first Canadian to win a gold medal on home soil when he took the freestyle moguls title in Vancouver. In Sochi he'll be back to try and repeat, and he knows all about bearing the burden of enormous expectations.
"You have to be strong and selfish to carry Canada on your shoulders," he concluded.
"When you grow up in sport you grow up wanting to be an Olympian," said Andrew Poje, an ice dancer who just missed the opportunity to compete in Vancouver along with his partner Kaitlyn Weaver.
Recently Weaver returned from a broken leg to combine with Poje and narrowly miss the podium at the world championships.
It was an astounding performance against all odds.
"If we are happy I truly believe we can conquer the world," Weaver said.
Woven into her words was the inner belief and fortitude that all Olympians seem to exemplify.
"Everything I feel or eat is about living this dream. It's about being a better athlete and person," said snowboarder Dominique Maltais.
She's been a firefighter in her native Quebec, but returns to the Games to improve upon the bronze-medal finish she recorded in Torino in 2006.
"For me it's all about the Olympics right now," Maltais figured.
The Olympians are patient and introspective when they speak. If asked the right questions they are unguarded and honest while refusing to rely upon clichés to express what drives them. They have doubts and insecurities but few of them, it turns out, would trade the opportunity they've been given to represent their country and themselves on the greatest of all stages.
"I am a lion," enthused freestyle skier Justine Dufour-Lapointe. "I just have this huge passion for my sport."
Mike Janyk, a slalom skier, didn't hesitate when estimating his chances in one of the most competitive disciplines at the Games.
"The Olympics aren't scary, they're empowering," he said.
Fellow alpine skier Marie-Michele Gagnon chimed in with the most thought provoking statement of all.
"The greatest gift my family ever gave me is optimism," she said.
All of which inspires an allegiance for their collective effort. These Olympians are an impressive bunch to say the least. And for two days they posed and smiled and answered all of our queries.
But for the most part the talking is done. Now they go back to their singular focus, which is hard work to get ready for Sochi.
They're not superheroes in spite of our best efforts to cast them in that light.
They're ordinary men and women capable of extraordinary things and as such, have enormous prospects when they find their comfort zone on the field of play in Sochi next February.
Scott brings vast experience, passion and knowledge to his role as host of CBC's Sports Weekend on CBC. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell has covered nine Olympic Games and co-hosted Olympic Morning for Beijing 2008: The Olympic Games. The Gemini-Award winning broadcaster and acclaimed author has also worked as a host and rinkside reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and has covered triathlon, gymnastics, rugby, cross-country skiing and biathlon at several Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.
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