What the Games mean to Canada
With no political overtones in this Olympics, Canada's role is all about winning
Canada's 'Own the Podium' initiative is aimed at nation being top medal-winner
No sport will captivate more than hockey, which should draw ratings bonanza
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 de Coubertin'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.)
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 Times devoted 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.