Canada Reborn

Own the Podium was more than just good sport. It was a picture of our country as it was always supposed to be.

Canada Reborn

Photograph by Brian Howell

For God’s sake don’t change the name.

Whether the Own the Podium program makes sense in overall policy terms can still be debated. The case for governments paying athletes to play games is far from clear, and it is easy to imagine all of the other uses that might have been made of the program’s $117-million budget.

But in terms of athletic excellence—winning medals—the program is an indisputable triumph. Do I need to rehearse the results? The most medals ever for Canada at a Winter Games, good for third place overall. The most gold medals of any country in these Games—indeed, more than any country has ever won at a Winter Games in their history.

As impressive was the breadth of the Canadian achievement. We medalled in nine different sports, spread amongst two dozen different athletes or teams. And lurking just off the podium, 23 fourth- or fifth-place finishers. All told, Canadians placed in the top five in 37 of the 86 events at these Games. Can any country match that?

It is difficult to convey how much of a change this is from the past. Until about 15 years ago, Canada had never won more than a handful of medals at any Winter Olympics, rarely even cracking the top 10 in the overall medal counts. And gold? Put it this way. The three gold medals Canada won on the last Saturday of the Vancouver Games was as many as it won in the entire 1994 Games. It’s as many as it won in the 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980 games combined.

Yet we now wake up to the reality that we have suddenly become a winter sports superpower, on par with such traditionally dominant nations as Germany and the United States, with many times our population. We aren’t just beating the world at hockey. We’re beating it at speed skating, at curling, at snowboarding and freestyle skiing and a bunch of other sports besides. Canada. Us.

It wasn’t just money that marked Own the Podium’s contribution to this change. It was a philosophy, an attitude, best expressed in that deliberately provocative name. We were going to shoot for the top, and we didn’t care who knew it—including ourselves. This seems elementary. Before you can achieve anything, you have to imagine yourself in the role. You have to see yourself as the kind of person who does that sort of thing. The point of Own the Podium was to get Canadians to see themselves as the kind of country who could finish first at the Olympics—to build a culture wherein Canadian athletes would see themselves as potential medal winners. It wasn’t enough just to hope it. You had to say it. Out loud.

Indeed, perhaps the surest sign of Own the Podium’s necessity is that it was controversial—as it remains, in some circles. It was too boastful, too arrogant, too…American. We were being disrespectful of our guests. We were setting ourselves up for failure. We were flying too close to the sun.

We can dispense with the last objection first, even without reference to our astonishing performance at these Games. It is true that we did not attain our stated objective of winning the most medals of any country. But does falling short of a goal mean we should not set one? How is failing an argument against trying? When was it decreed that no goal should be attempted that was not certain of success? The whole point of setting goals—worthwhile goals, at any rate—is that you might not achieve them.

As for the delicate sensibilities of other nations: come off it. Do we imagine that Germany, or the U.S., or the other sporting powers did not come to Vancouver with the intention of “owning the podium”? Maybe they didn’t say it in quite the same way. But they certainly meant it.

No, what really bugs the critics is not what Own the Podium says to other nations, but what it says to us: the picture it reflects of ourselves. For a country that succeeds so spectacularly in one area will be less forgiving of mediocrity in others. And mediocrity, for many Canadians, had become a balm. That, too, is changing: Own the Podium didn’t come out of nowhere, after all. It reflected a change in attitude as much as it produced it.

But it wasn’t so long ago that this was a country that feared free trade; that apologized to separatists for its existence; that freeloaded off others for its defence; that could not balance its budget or conquer inflation because, after all, it was just too hard. Afraid, ashamed, we sought solace in our own insignificance. At least we were nicer than other nations.

Even before the Olympics, there had been a great deal of gnashing of teeth over Canada’s supposed changing image abroad. People in other countries don’t like us as much as they used to, the critics wailed. But to the extent that’s even remotely true, we should understand why: they preferred us as doormats. Our “popularity” was strictly to do with our ineffectualness. We didn’t get in anyone’s way. We weren’t a threat. We were the milquetoast of the town.

But that never was the real Canada. The country that aimed for the middle, that dared to be modest, that coughed before it entered the room: that was a comparatively recent invention. Go back to the first half of the last century, before the nationalists started remaking us in their own image, and you see a different Canada: the Canada of Laurier and Leacock, when it was not just a goal, but an assumption, that this country, two steps out of the woods though it was, would be the next great power. By the end of the 20th century, the “century of Canada,” we would have 100 million people. World leaders? Top of the medals? Of course. This is what we were supposed to be.

“Before the year 2000,” the literary critic William Arthur Deacon wrote in 1933, “Canada’s world dominance will be as undisputed a fact as any commonplace of history.” Not only foremost in commerce and in culture, “she will exercise undisputed intellectual leadership . . . she will have the undiluted respect of the world, not only for the excellence of her own institutions, but also for the example of intelligent justice in both internal and external dealings. This will be the characteristic by which her golden age will be remembered, as Rome is acclaimed for her organizing ability.”

That brashness, that cockiness, never really went away. It just went underground. Even when, as in the national sport, it was staring us in the face, we ignored it when it did not fit our stereotypes of ourselves. But it is harder to ignore it now: not after these Games, and the massive, almost cathartic banshee yell of national pride it has brought on. Own the Podium? Hell yeah!

For me, this Olympics, and its effect on our sense of self, is summed up in two of our first gold medal winners, Alexandre Bilodeau and Jon Montgomery: the ego and the id of our national psyche. Bilodeau, with his manifest decency and humility, whose first thought on winning was of his disabled brother, is who we would like to be. Montgomery, the muscle-flexing, beer-swilling skeleton daredevil, who only took up the sport as a way to get to the Olympics, is who we are.

Or maybe there’s no contradiction between the two. Maybe what we have learned is this: that we can hold fast to those traditional Canadian virtues of compassion, generosity, and fairness, and still be aggressive, ambitious, and competitive as all get out. If that offends a few visiting British sportswriters, that is just a chance we are going to have to take.

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