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What the Games mean to Canada


Canada's Olympic home losing streak began July 18, 1976, a day after the opening ceremonies in Montreal, trudged depressingly through Calgary 1988 and now stands at 0-for-244 as an expectant nation awaits the lighting of the cauldron for the XXI Olympic Winter Games.

Yes, 244 gold medals were handed out in those two distant festivals of sweat and not a single Canadian was able to get his eager, callused hands on one. Canada stereotypically is considered one of the most hospitable actors on the global stage (when the United Nations needs peacekeepers, it invariable casts its gaze there) but an 0-fer of these proportions is positively Olympian. (Even International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge did some throat-clearing on the subject a few years ago, urging Canada to be more presentable hosts on the field of play.) While most of the country is north of the 49th parallel, when it comes to a home Olympics, Canada is far south of the Mendoza Line.

(A brief interruption: Of course there are other ways to gauge a nation's success in the Olympics beyond how many medals, gold and otherwise, are draped around the neck of its youth in this made-for-TV-and-Twitter extravaganza. There is the legacy of the Games, from the infrastructure to the presumably inspired citizenry. Although support for Vancouver 2010 among Canadians is most tepid in British Columbia, which has a chunk of the expense and all of the actual bother of staging them, there is a transformative element in these five connected rings, at least to the dewy-eyed who see past what is now the world's most significant commercial brand and embrace Pierre deCoubertin's founding vision. But as long as the IOC insists on playing national anthems and keeping an official table, medal count is a convenient snapshot.) Canada's futility will end soon, probably on Saturday, the first day of medal competition, when downhiller Manuel Osborne-Paradis, short track speedskater Charles Hamelin or, most probably, defending moguls champion Jennifer Heil becomes the first Canadian Olympian to win on home soil. (Or, more correctly, snow or ice.) Après elle, le déluge. By the time the Olympic flame is snuffed out Feb. 28, Canadian athletes should have a fistful of gold. Maybe two fistfuls.

If these Olympics go like the number crunchers expect, in a fortnight the Canadian people will have shifted their focus from the trivia of "Who was first?" to Who's No. 1?" The focus of these assigned musings for an American who has lived in the country for 31 years (and who will be covering his 16th Games) is "What do the Vancouver Olympics mean to Canada?", a premise that implies existential issues more profound than curling results.

At times in the historical, political and economic evolution of nations, the Olympics have been layered with Big Picture import. Occasionally, success in sport was an arm of political policy. In others cases, merely the playing the role of gracious host was paramount. Just as Tokyo 1964 brought Japan in from the post World War II cold, Seoul 1988 was South Korea's formal reintroduction. Albertville 1992 was, in part, an infrastructure play, one way for a mountainous region in France to upgrade to the late 20th century. Beijing 2008 was a sporting appetizer in China's game plan to be the leading world force in the 21st century. We won't even touch the Berlin Games of 1936.

The beauty of Vancouver 2010 is there is no ulterior motive, no agenda tangential to the 17 days of fun and games. These Olympics do -- not really -- mean anything to the host nation, at least not in the way the competition 17 months ago did in China. While it took an Olympics to improve the white-knuckle highway from Vancouver to Whistler, the Games really are about winter sport and, to a degree, Canada's role in them.

These Olympics are about medals, those shiny things in which a nation admires its own reflection. The days when a Canadian might finish fifth but win the Miss Congeniality Award will be consigned to the landfill of history.

After the IOC awarded the Games to Vancouver-Whistler in 2003, various sport federations, the Canadian Olympic Committee, Sport Canada and the Olympic organizing committee (VANOC) established a technical initiative with the stated goal of making Canada the leading medal-winner in 2010. The program was called Own the Podium. The name was audacious and even aggressive, at least when juxtaposed with what most of the world assumes is Canada's ingrained politesse. Own the Podium? Maybe Reach the Podium or Please Let Us Take a Good Look at the Podium. A time-share, maybe, but owning it?

The five-year, $110 million program (funded primarily by the government but also by corporate and private donations) sounded vaguely like a less draconian version of Project 119, China's almost Soviet-style plan to dominate the Beijing 2008 medal tables by concentrating resources in the five sports most likely to produce the most medals. (Of the $22 million doled out by Own the Podium for the current winter season, speed skating, a potential medal bonanza, received roughly 10 times more than Canada's black hole, ski jumping.)

Then, to guard the home ice and snow advantage, Canada widely barred foreign athletes from training at the Olympic venues. In September The New York Timesdevoted a front-page story about the sporting protectionism ("CANADA PROTECTS HOME ADVANTAGE AT OLYMPICS," the headline blared), probably not because the stance was unprecedented but because good ol' Canada was the one not playing nice with the rest of the kids.

If Canada scoops about 30 medals, the cost of each (if you discount individual sponsorships and some athletes such as Heil and speedskating goddess Christine Nesbitt, who have been further underwritten by B2ten, a foundation created by Montreal hedge fund manager J.D. Miller) will be around $3.7 million.

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The underlying presumption is Own the Podium money, roughly split between the federal government and VANOC, is not an expense as much as an investment that pays dividends in psychic income. Hey Canada, if short tracker Kalyna Roberge wins the 500 meters, everybody wins. The conceit is these Olympians represent not merely Canada but Canada's best self. They can also be a connective thread that unites a country with six times zones, two official languages and seemingly 200 regional grievances.

A Mari usque ad Mare ("From Sea to Sea") is Canada's motto, but it is more descriptive than insightful. The country stretches from St. John's to Victoria, but the axis that dominates life for most Canadians is not east-west but north-south. Vancouverites have more of an affinity for those in Seattle or San Francisco than Ottawa or Moncton. Montrealers, both French and English, look to Boston and New York more than to Edmonton or Winnipeg.

Just as everyone in the U.S. once had Walter Cronkite in common, there remain some shared experiences in Canada. For example, pretty much everyone hates Toronto, except Torontonians, who merely loathe their traffic. Then there are sports. Slap a maple leaf on a uniform and everyone, even those Quebecers who view the land with an emotional detachment -- this is another chapter for another day -- seem to care.

Especially hockey.The men's hockey tournament is the Godzilla of the Games, poised to destroy everything in its path. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in November, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed concern that the fortnight could be viewed as a hockey tournament with some other stuff going on in the other four rings.

"The hockey, particularly the men's, does risk dominating not just coverage but dominating Canadians' impressions of the Olympics, which would be unfortunate," Harper said, "because Canada, really from 1988 on when we first hosted the Winter Olympics in Calgary ... has really grown and grown as an Olympic power. I'm not sure most Canadians are aware of how close we are to the top in overall winter sports performance now. It is very much a risk. Even as a hockey fan, I hope that won't be the case. The Olympics is about more than hockey. And Canada, we're not just hosting it. We're going to be a major player across the board."While all gold medals are equal, in this Orwellian construct clearly two will be more equal than others. Keith Pelley, head of the CTV Olympic Broadcast Consortium, suggested last fall that if Team Canada made it to the gold medal game in the final event, some 12 million people -- more than a third of the country -- would tune in, a number he conceded might be on the low side when SI revisited the issue with him last month.

Indeed, in a CTV poll of the top 10 Canadian Winter Olympic moments, the men's hockey victory in Salt Lake City, which ended a gold-medal drought of 50 years, was No. 1. That was easy. But the women's hockey win over the U.S. that same year was No. 2, a shock considering this was just the second Olympics for women's hockey and the field was nothing but Ring Dings beyond the finalists.

Brushed aside in the puck mania were Barbara AnnScott's figure skating gold in 1948, Nancy Greene's giant slalom win in Grenoble 1968, Gaétan Boucher's double gold in speed skating in Sarajevo 1984 and even the controversial and belated gold medal awarded to skating pair Jamie Salé and David Pelletier after they had been hosed by a finagling French judge in 2002. Last week a Canadian Press-Harris Decima poll revealed that 53 percent of poll respondents said the Games would be a success if the men's hockey team won gold even if Canada did not top the medal count.

Harper is right, at least partially. Canada is a winter power and should zoom past the seven golds and 24 medals it won in Turin, which placed it fifth in the tables. (This did not constitute owning the podium although it was a nice two-week rental.) But success is no longer is a shock. When I first moved here in 1979, people were still buzzing about swimmer Graham Smith's six golds at the Commonwealth Games the previous year. And in the early 1980s, many Canadians in the pre-internet days tuned in the CBC late Saturday winter afternoons to watch Crazy Canucks like Ken Read and Steve Podborski ski, and sometimes win, European races that had been taped 10 hours earlier.

But like the British Empire, that sunset set a long time ago. By the turn of the century, the stories long had stopped being novelties and had moved off the front of the Sunday sports sections. Strong results were more norms than exceptions. Slightly more than a year after the advent of Own the Podium, Canadians won more medals on the various 2006-07 World Cup circuits than any country except Germany.

The final Vancouver 2010 accounting likely won't be divined until long after the medals have been tabulated and the world has moved on to other diversions. If the financial burden does not prove crushing and the new facilities built or improved for these Games spawn another generation of Olympians, the Olympics might be remembered as the prod that nudged gorgeous Vancouver, albeit reluctantly, given the support level in the polls -- one rung further up the ladder of world cities.

Of course, that's the future. The starting gun is now. Rather than the Big Picture, most of Canada will look at the small picture, maybe a 37-inch flat screen, and hope for a gold medal on the Saturday.

You have to start somewhere.