Cheering for our athletes and ourselves

ANDREW COYNE: We have all, to a greater or lesser extent, undergone a change in national temperament

Cheering for our athletes and ourselves

People are talking about a wave of patriotism washing across the country as Canadians cheer on their Olympic athletes. I’m sure this is true, but why? What is it based on? Why exactly should we get excited because a Canadian athlete wins a medal—because our guy slid on a piece of wood down a snowy incline faster than their guys did? It’s clear why the athlete himself might be excited. But how is that a measure of our collective self-worth?

These are more than philosophical questions. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, including $117 million targeted at elite athletes through the “Own the Podium” program, on the premise that we should get excited about our athletes’ achievements. Of course that implicates us in a simplistic sense: our dollars, we hope, will buy more medals than theirs will. But—leaving aside whether that’s the highest and best use of scarce public dollars—is there anything more to it than that? Why should we care whether “we” win any medals? What’s it got to do with us?

The answer, I think, is that the success of any one individual, in sports as in other fields, is not wholly attributable to that individual. It is also a collective endeavour. It emerges from a culture, and while the talent and effort of each individual are plainly of supreme importance to their success, the likelihood of such individual successes, on average and in the aggregate, will be the greater or lesser depending on the culture that surrounds them, and the cultural attributes with which they are imbued.

There is a reason we talk of “German engineering,” or “Japanese quality” (at least, we used to). It isn’t that, by some random accident of birth, Germany happens to be endowed with an abnormally high number of superior engineers. It is because something in the culture of Germany places a premium on engineering excellence, and will accept nothing less. The meticulousness and attention to detail for which the Germans are known is not a myth, or a stereotype (though obviously it does not apply in every case). It is something they learn from each other.

Think of those extraordinary flowerings of human culture that happen every now and then: Florence in the quattrocento, or Elizabethan London. We can marvel at the individual genius of a Shakespeare. But we have also to reckon with the remarkable generation of artists who were his contemporaries. Was there something in the water? Or did each bootstrap the others to higher levels of accomplishment? You’re Kit Marlowe, and you’ve just written a play you think is rather good. But then you go to Will Shakespeare’s latest, and suddenly you are made to see what a truly great play looks like. So you go back and rewrite. You raise your standards.

I hesitate to compare luging to Shakespeare. But something of the same dynamic must explain why some countries develop a culture of winning, and others do not. To be sure, Olympic success correlates fairly closely with more mundane variables such as income (the richer the country, the more money it can spend on its athletes) or population (the more people it has, the higher the chances of producing a superior physical talent). But then you come upon the outliers, like Norway in the Winter Games or Australia in the Summer Games, who win medals out of all proportion to what mere numbers would predict.

This country used to be content to win a handful of medals at the Olympics, summer or winter. You could say we were more serene in our sense of self, less caught up in such arbitrary measures of national achievement. Or you could say we were complacent. At any rate, somewhere along the way we decided that it mattered to us to win at other sports, the way it has always mattered to us to win at hockey.

We didn’t just invest a lot of money in it, or harness the kinds of high-tech scientific expertise described in that Maclean’s cover story a few weeks back. Something shifted in the culture: in our expectations, certainly. Whether we have also developed the habits of mind and qualities of character that are required to meet those expectations is less settled. You can see it most clearly in the women’s speed skating team: it isn’t just talent or training that explains their remarkable success, but a shared psychological state—a culture of winning—one that still eludes, say, the men’s alpine team.

So yes, when Canadian athletes win Olympic glory, we are entitled to cheer. It does have something to do with us. We have all, to a greater or lesser extent, taken part in that change of national temperament, and as such their achievement is, in whatever part, our achievement, a collaborative effort, a culture. I call it a culture of winning, but it’s really a culture of excellence, a refusal to settle for second-best, and with any luck their example will spread into other areas of our national life. We don’t have enough such examples. There aren’t many things we make here that we make better than anyone else.

But these athletes were made here. They are what we have chosen to be. They are made of us, and are helping to make us in their turn.

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