2010 Winter Olympic Games, Vancouver, CanadaFebruary 12-28
Posted: Friday February 12, 2010 9:48AM; Updated: Friday February 12, 2010 10:14AM
Michael Farber

What the Games mean to Canada (cont.)

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Vancouverites often connect more with the Pacific Northwest U.S. than Canada, but all Canadians have some shared experiences.
Simon Bruty/SI

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.

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 Ann Scott'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.

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