March 1, 2010 12:23 pm

Our Olympic legacy: the world thinks we’re cool

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The Olympic cauldron is now extinguished. But don’t feel let down.

The 2010 Winter Olympics have ignited something even more powerful that will linger on and shape Vancouver and Canada for years to come.

We’ve just experienced an urban and national coming together, a redefinition of this country that hasn’t happened since Expo 67.

That’s when Montreal was the stage for the world’s fair that announced Canada, then 100 years old, was a young, striving modern country that saw itself with a role to play in the world.

Vancouver has been the stage for precisely the same thing over the past 17 days of the Olympics.

We’ve been given unprecedented exposure in the world’s media. More than 3.5 billion people have viewed some part of the Games. That includes more than 185 million Americans – that’s well over half of the population of the United States. In Canada, the proportion who watched at least some part of the Games was even higher: an incredible 99 per cent.

What they all saw was Vancouver, consistently rated one of the best places to live on the planet, throw what is probably the most successful Winter Games in history.

Aside from watching Canadians haul in a record number of gold medals, they also saw the essence of 21st-century Canada: a vibrant multicultural society embracing international visitors in the post 9/11 world. A mid-size city come into its own by successfully organizing one of the planet’s most complex events with aplomb and precision.

And the world saw a country, often noted for its humility, finally setting aside its diffidence to embrace a joyous patriotism without descending into ugly nationalism or jingoism.

As an exercise in branding, the business of sending out a coherent message to the world, we took the gold in this Olympics, says Duane Knapp, an international branding expert. “The world saw a peaceful, multicultural society host the world,” said Knapp, founder of BrandStrategy, Inc. “For Vancouver, this will take on the same kind of standing as the 2000 Sydney Games did for Australia. There’s a total halo effect on Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada after this.”

The Canadian Tourism Commission, which sees the Olympics as a way to deepen Canada’s presence in international markets, sees it pretty much the same way.

“Expo 67 was a moment of coming of age for Canada,” said Michele McKenzie, president of the commission. “One of the things it did in young people was inspire interest in our country. What this Olympics has done is expose younger generations to what Canada is as a country. . . . I think the world has a much deeper understanding of the country after this. It’s magic.”

Slam poet Shane Koyczan got the new Canada in his opening ceremony poem, Define Canada, which millions of people have now heard on NBC and YouTube:

” … And some say what defines us

is something as simple as please and thank you

and as for you’re welcome

well we say that too

but we are more

than genteel or civilized

we are an idea in the process

of being realized

we are young

we are cultures strung together

then woven into a tapestry

and the design

is what makes us more

than the sum total of our history

we are an experiment going right for a change …”

In a nutshell, what the Olympics has done is update and reinvigorate the brand of Vancouver and Canada.

To the world we’re not a sleepy city by the sea, or a country of Mounties, igloos and people who may say “sorry” too much.

We’re a democracy that works in the post 9/11 world, a modern economy with focus on sustainability and the capacity to handle almost any global event we wish to tackle.

For Vancouverites, British Columbians and Canadians, that’s good news. Whenever we travel abroad as a citizen, we always take our national brand with us, whether we’re on vacation or hunting down business. After the 2010 Olympics, being able to say you’re from Vancouver is suddenly very cool, eh?

mcernetig@vancouversun.com

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