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Triumph, tears and spirit

Canada Summer Games torch still burns under the bright Sunday afternoon sun before the start of the closing ceremonies.<br>Saying thank you: Closing ceremonies
Canada Summer Games torch still burns under the bright Sunday afternoon sun before the start of the closing ceremonies.
Beach balls at the ready outside Investors Group Field before the start of the closing ceremonies.<br>
Beach balls at the ready outside Investors Group Field before the start of the closing ceremonies.
Volunteers wait for athletes to arrive at the soccer complex next door to Investors Group Field prior to the closing ceremonies.<br>
Volunteers wait for athletes to arrive at the soccer complex next door to Investors Group Field prior to the closing ceremonies.
Athletes head to the soccer complex next door to Investors Group Field prior to the ceremonies<br>
Athletes head to the soccer complex next door to Investors Group Field prior to the ceremonies
Sierra Noble performs at the closing ceremonies.<br>
Sierra Noble performs at the closing ceremonies.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/8/2017 (1096 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s all over now, this whirlwind that whipped through Winnipeg, this summer storm of youthful Canadian potential. After two weeks of heat and sweat, after tears and triumph and 745 medals, the 2017 Canada Games are over.

And in the last act of these Games, their farewell performance, visitors here saw the spirit of Manitoba.

It was all over the turf at Investors Group Field on Sunday, as the closing ceremony unfolded. It was there when Métis elder George Fleury delivered the closing prayer in Michif, a language born in the heart of Red River Valley.

And it was there as the show spread out like a Manitoba summer, laid-back and easy. Sierra Noble’s fiddle blazed; the Asham Stompers unleashed a vivacious 30-minute jig. There were drummers, dancers, even Fred Penner.

Dignitaries took turns on the stage. Governor General David Johnston thanked Indigenous elders who provided cultural guidance; Canada Games alumna and Olympian Catriona LeMay Doan shared words of athletic wisdom.

Mayor Brian Bowman invited visitors to come back again; then he passed the Games’ flag to event chair Tom Quinn, who passed it to Red Deer, Alta., mayor Tara Veer. Her city will host the Canada Winter Games in two years.

The cauldron flame flickered. Anishinaabe elder Dave Courchene Jr., lit a torch, like the one he helped run 50 years ago at the 1967 Pan Am Games; now, he passed it to a runner from Red Deer, who carried it out of the stadium.

With that, the flame that burned over Winnipeg was extinguished. Johnston declared the Games formally closed.

So that’s it then, it’s over. After two weeks and 248 different events, the 2017 Canada Games has come to its close. While it flourished, it was a small city unto itself, filled by 3,400 athletes, visiting mission staff and 6,000 volunteers.

Now that it’s in the rearview mirror, the last question to be answered: was it all worth it?

Winnipeg is the largest city to host the Canada Games since 1967, when the event debuted in Quebec City. Usually, the event aims for smaller cities, where it’s more likely to be the hottest ticket in town: Regina, Kamloops, Brandon.

So in the years leading up to this summer, Games organizers wondered: in a season where Winnipeggers like to escape to the cabin, the beach or Folklorama, would the event’s spirit get overshadowed by big-city distractions?

Turns out, they needn’t have worried. The Games thrived in Winnipeg, surpassing even organizers’ most optimistic expectations. By the end of last week, average attendance at ticketed venues was soaring past 1,500 per day.

In many venues, the vibe was electric. There were sellout crowds at volleyball, sellout crowds at softball, throngs of fans cheering for swimming at the Pan Am Pool. The soccer venue rocked, most days; the triathlon course did too.

Nearly 7,000 people flocked to Shaw Park to watch Manitoba and Saskatchwan battle for baseball gold; Baseball Canada said it could have been the largest audience for an under-17 baseball game the country has ever seen.

Then there was Saturday night at the University of Manitoba, where the home province’s women clinched volleyball gold in a three-set thriller over Alberta. As the final point landed, the jam-packed crowd exploded with ecstatic cheers.

Meanwhile, Manitobans rarely pass up a free party, so the vibe outside competition venues thrived too.

Sixteen hours before the closing ceremonies, the last volley of fireworks flew over The Forks. It was Alberta night on the main stage, and thousands had turned out to watch country star Brett Kissel close out the show.

Nearby, dozens of people filled up the bridges, leaning against railings, watching the bright lights dance in the sky.

This was the Canada Games in Winnipeg, and it was a smash hit, all right. So what will be its legacy?

On Friday afternoon, host society CEO Jeff Hnatiuk confessed to approaching the grand finale with mixed emotions. He’s been working on these Games for four years now, seconded to the job from his usual post at Sport Manitoba.

For Hnatiuk, there’s still work left to do; his contract continues to October, but what lies ahead is mostly paying bills and finishing paperwork and tying up loose ends. The fun part, this whirlwind of 14-hour days, is now formally over.

"It’s mixed emotions in that it’s done," he said. "Our volunteer team starts disbanding and going their own way, our staff team… it’s a break-up of a team that in most cases, people won’t have the opportunity to work together again.

"When you invest so much time and energy into something like this and it just ends, it’s definitely mixed emotions for sure," he continued. "There will be a significant crash felt by a lot of people once about 4 p.m. Sunday rolls around."

Still, they can walk away feeling easy. For the most part, the Games unfolded neatly, with only a few bumps in the road: stormy weather on Wednesday, slightly elevated E. coli levels at the Birds Hill Park swim venue on Saturday.

But in both those cases, contingency plans quickly clicked into place. Events dented by Wednesday’s weather were simply delayed, and wrapped up under perfect weather; the open-water swimming calmly moved to Pan Am Pool.

Other than that, the Games couldn’t have gone much better. The weather was mostly warm and sunny, the events mostly seamless. And all over the city, volunteers in orange T-shirts displayed the Games’ presence here brightly.

In fact, Hnatiuk mused, the whole experience reminded him a little of the 1999 Pan Am Games. Not in scope, he agreed — those games were, obviously, far bigger than these — but in the energy, the vibe, and the visibility.

I thought of that too this week, during a late-night grocery store run minutes before closing; the only other customer was a Canada Games volunteer, looking exhausted, picking up supplies after a long day at an assigned venue.

And I thought back to ‘99, and seeing Pan Am Games’ volunteers spilling all over Winnipeg in salmon-pink shirts.

"I was just thinking that the other day, too," Hnatiuk said. "It’s a very similar feel. We’re seeing the same thing with our team out there. Hopefully we’ll see these orange shirts 20 years later, like we see with the pink Pan Am shirts today."

At the closing ceremonies on Sunday, those orange shirts lit up the stands at IGF, a mosaic of community pride. Yet perhaps the most telling sign of the Games’ legacy was observed not in colours, but in moments of greeting.

On the stadium’s edge, during a break between acts, a gaggle of people from all over Canada started talking. A man from near Rankin Inlet, visiting the Games with his son, answered a flurry of curious questions about Northern life.

"It’s too hot for me down here," he said, laughing. "I’m a Nunavut boy."

Somewhere in the talk of fishing and polar bears and kids, one of the Nunavut man’s new friends asked if he had already collected an Ontario pin. When the man shook his head, the Ontarian whisked one from his pocket; a gift.

"I got you bro," the Ontarian said, with a grin. "I got you."

And they wandered back towards the stands together, laughing about the weather, craning their necks as military jets shrieked overhead. On the turf, hundreds of young athletes lounged in the sun, a patchwork of provincial colours.

For two weeks on the prairie, Canada’s brightest young lights played together. Wherever they go from here, this much is certain: the people who watched, who cheered, and who helped bring these Games to life will remember.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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