The risk of aiming high

Will medal counts affect future funding for Canada’s athletes?

Ken MacQueen with Nancy Macdonald, John Geddes and Jason Kirby

The risk of aiming high

Throughout this premature Vancouver spring, The Question has preoccupied Canada’s sporting press: can this country still “own” the Olympic podium by topping the medal count? The medal performance anxiety issue is raised daily, in all its variations, to the increasingly tense executive of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), and to the frustration of some athletes.

On Sunday, an exasperated COC president Michael Chambers said this, in steering the question into more favourable winds: “We’re going to win more medals. Canadians aren’t all mathematicians or accountants, they’re not just counting up medals. They’ve embraced the wave of the Games.”

By Monday, after a disappointing weekend—a men’s hockey loss to the U.S., and unexpected medal shutouts in men’s ski cross, men’s speed skating, and men’s short track—reality set in: top spot was impossible. Canada entered competition Monday tied for fourth—four gold, four silver and one bronze—15 behind the leading U.S. Our ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir added a gold that night, and Ashleigh McIvor won another on Tuesday in ski cross, but Canada was still far back of the U.S. “We are going to be short of our goal, I readily admit that,” said Chris Rudge, the former Quebecor executive who serves as CEO of the Olympic committee.

That said, he wasn’t abandoning the goal, only the reality of reaching it. “We’ll do the analysis, post-Games,” Rudge said. “It’s painful to do the autopsy while the patient is still alive. We’re still working as hard as we can to make sure these athletes have got the support that they need, and to know that we are behind them.”

Really, the greater question is this: does it matter who walks away with the most medals? The answer to that—a qualified no, in the opinion of the COC—is both complex and simple. It depends on whether you’re the sort who plows through the sports page agate and lives or dies by the win-loss columns. Or if you’re the type who sees a greater value in setting a goal even when the risk of failure is ever present. Own the Podium, says Rudge, “speaks to the hidden passion within all of us to raise our own game to be the very best we can be in whatever we do.”

The COC founded this brashly named upstart five years ago, backed by $117 million, funded by federal and provincial governments, and from sponsorship money raised by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC). Its purpose was to drive a sea change in attitude in advance of the Games and to foster sport research and technology, better coaching, and hungrier athletes, says Rudge. He sees optimism even in the all-or-nothing crashes that left Lyndon Rush and Lascelles Brown grinding sideways down the bobsled track; that left Chris Del Bosco flattened and dazed on the ski cross course; that saw Mellisa Hollingsworth bouncing off the walls of the skeleton run.

As of Tuesday, just one of Canada’s 10 medals was bronze, the Miss Congeniality of podium pageantry. “Quite obviously,” says Rudge, athletes “are not going to be satisfied with a bronze but are pushing like hell to get to the very top.” That is exactly the drive that Own the Podium wants to instill, says its CEO Roger Jackson, who was part of the rowing pair that won Canada’s only gold medal at the 1964 Summer Games. “It’s an ambitious attitude,” he says. And if the program’s edgy name riles rival nations, so what? “I was an Olympic champion,” he says. “Would I say I want to be number four in the world?”

That give ’er attitude comes naturally to a rare few. Skeleton ace Jon Montgomery, for one, didn’t let a heap of expectations ruin a good time. “I really didn’t feel pressure from Canadians, from Own the Podium, from anybody,” he said over a beer, a day after his gold medal run. “I viewed it as I had an immense amount of support.” Canada’s sports psychologists have preached that message for years. But saying it—as many athletes have, as if by rote—and believing it? Two different things.

The risk of aiming highWhen athletes fall short, the price is huge. Hollingsworth, who owned the World Cup circuit so far this season, dissolved into tears with her fifth-place Olympic finish, saying she let Canada down. A day later she had 500 emails of support from across the country.

Then there’s 27-year-old American-born Chris Del Bosco, who holds dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship thanks to a Canadian father who moved south and never came back. A rare few initially wondered if he was competing for Canada under a flag of convenience; you don’t hear much of that now. He walked into a post-event news conference on Cypress Mountain, clinging to the edge of emotional control. He said this of the crash that left him in fourth place: “Third, I guess, is all right for some people, but I wanted to give 100 per cent, for my sport and for my country.” As he left the room, his hoodie pulled over his toque, he started to cry.

Sports administrators are also feeling the heat. Rightly, or not, they see medals as a deliverable that politicians understand. As the coast-to-coast torch relay was stirring up enthusiasm for the Games late last year, lobbyists for the COC and several allied national sports groups made a visit to Parliament Hill. They aimed to capitalize on Olympic fever to persuade the Conservatives to give an additional $22 million a year in high-performance winter sport funding to replace the amount VANOC provided in the run-up.

It’s a tough sell. The Tories are struggling to shrink the $50-billion-plus federal deficit. The government did commit to maintain current funding levels: $11 million a year for winter athletes and $36 million for summer athletes, but that’s it. At a government briefing this week, Maclean’s learned that the budget contains no new spending measures. If so, expect the loss of coaches, development programs and other essentials, administrators warn. “I am concerned mostly because it’s been so phenomenally successful,” says Peter Judge, CEO of freestyle skiing, which delivered a gold and a silver in the first week of the Games. “It would be tragic to [lose] a business plan and initiative that has really laid the foundation for generational success.”

While sports advocates see every new medal as a bargaining chip, odds are the federal budget is long since set. What matters most is unlikely to be whether Canada wins 20 medals, 24 or 28. While politicians at all levels are happy to be in the presence of Olympic medallists, they are more watchful of the performance of VANOC, Canada’s second team at these Games.

It is VANOC that runs the Games, if not the athletes. It is the organization that spends billions, not the relatively few millions that go to athletics. When VANOC stumbles, the world knows, first impressions being as unforgiving as the milliseconds of a timing clock. Failure to win a sport is tolerable. But failure to deliver a successful Games carries a whole other level of grief. The Olympics pack up and move on, but a reputation stays behind. It is the return on investment that bid committees promise, and governments expect. It is to be paid in foreign investment, in tourism, in the intangibles of a healthier, more engaged and unified society.

Both teams, the athletes and VANOC, have had successes and stumbles, and both have been touched by tragedy—real human loss, not the weepy end of a sporting event. The very public death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili will forever colour the Games. So too will the tortured admission of a deflated and shaken VANOC CEO John Furlong: “It’s not something that I had prepared for,” he said, “or ever thought I would need to be prepared for.”

Canadian athletes were rocked again Sunday by the sudden death of Thérèse Rochette, the 55-year-old mother of figure skater Joannie Rochette. She died of a heart attack hours after arriving in Vancouver, just days before her daughter was to compete. Later Sunday, with family in the stands, 24-year-old Rochette wiped her tears and practised her short program, an epic act of courage.

The risk of aiming highRochette is determined to carry on, as the Georgian team did. As did Furlong and VANOC. Medals were lost. Medals were won. VANOC, and a well-rehearsed management team operating from a 24-hour-a-day operations centre, poured resources at every glitch and challenge: replacing substandard buses, scouring the western U.S. for giant hay bales for its weather-battered freestyle course, importing snow, improving access to the wildly popular Olympic cauldron. By the second week, they had shifted perceptions, making early predictions of disaster by a handful of over-quoted foreign media look farcical. “Things are going extremely well,” said a more relaxed Dave Cobb, deputy CEO of the organizing committee. “We’re getting great feedback, but you cannot let your guard down.”

The mood lightened, even as the early medal count slowed. Whistler was in party mode. And a giddy new Vancouver shed a heavy cloud of pre-Olympic cynicism and ambivalence. “It completely evaporated once the athletes and the flame arrived,” says Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. “It will be part of our character going forward,” he says of the Olympic spirit. “It is confirming what was already within us.”

A collective madness descended that cannot be fully understood and often teeters like a downhiller on the brink of disaster. People queue for an hour or more for an unimpeded view of the Olympic cauldron, as though fire was the hottest new invention since the iPad. Resident and visitor alike clog the streets, wearing team colours and plaid hoser chic, bursting with the least provocation into often-tipsy versions of O Canada. Spectators scream during curling matches as if they were hockey games, and treat hockey games as if every one is game seven, final round, Stanley Cup. Robertson, in attendance for Canada’s hockey loss to the U.S., was thrilled and relieved by the game’s peaceful aftermath, albeit one that was aided by an early closing of all downtown liquor stores.

Most fans will never get closer than a TV screen to the athletes themselves, but it matters not. The same holds true for millions across the country. More than half of Canadians in an Ipsos Reid poll conducted mid-event for the Historica-Dominion Institute already consider these Games a more defining national moment than hockey’s 1972 Summit Series. Some 84 per cent “say they won’t be disappointed if Canada fails to win the medal count. And seven in 10 disagree that “there is too much Canadian nationalism on display.” Perhaps, like much of the rest of the world, they are more bemused than troubled by this aggressive new hunger to win.

There seems to be a fresh appreciation for a beauty in such striving that transcends success or failure. There was a Browning—Robert the poet, not Kurt the skater—who mused in a famous piece of pentameter about a painter’s quest for the impossible. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” he wrote. “Or what’s a heaven for?”

And that’s the nub of it. The Games aren’t just about winning. They certainly aren’t just about gold medals in hockey. Most definitely, they aren’t just about sport. They are a “metaphor,” as Rudge puts it, for the risks and sacrifices that are the price of greatness. Besides, come what may when the puck drops on Feb. 28, every Canadian knows there’s hockey enough in the afterlife. Or what’s a heaven for?