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.