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
(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
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.
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
If Canada scoops about 30 medals, the cost of each (if you discount individual sponsorships and some athletes such as Heil and speedskating goddess
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
Just as everyone in the U.S. once had
Especially hockey.The men's hockey tournament is the Godzilla of the Games, poised to destroy everything in its path. In an interview with
"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."
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
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
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.