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Olympic chest-beating: Deadly or just poor taste?

Canada set out to win the most medals at all costs, and wound up eating its words and then some.

Canadian flags and slogans are seen in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond in a combination photo, prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games February 9, 2010. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — From the moment of its birth five years ago, the so-called Own the Podium Olympic program smacked of something un-Canadian.

The goal, set by the Canadian Olympic Committee, was to dominate the Vancouver Winter Games and win more medals than any other country.

Canadians like winning as much as anyone. But operation Own the Podium suggested a brashness more suited to our American neighbors. Loudly proclaiming world domination violates a Canadian sense of modesty and proportion.

Canadians prefer to keep expectations in check. Since the legendary hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972 — when only a last minute goal in the final game saved Canada from embarrassment — we’ve learned it’s best to keep chest beating at a minimum even in our national sport (loudmouth former hockey coach Don Cherry notwithstanding).

Indeed, our best and highest paid hockey players fell far short of a medal at the 2006 Turin Games. In those games, medal prospects looked grim after the first week. Then a burst of surprise victories saw Canada clinch third place overall in the medal standings with 24. That’s the Canadian way: Say little and deliver your best.

For Vancouver 2010, Canadian Olympic officials decided instead to say a lot: Nothing less than No. 1 in overall medals would do. And they invested $117 million over five years to make it happen.

They also tried to give Canadian athletes an edge by limiting the training access foreign rivals had to Olympic venues prior to the Games. Foreign athletes complained and Canadian sports columnists questioned the strategy’s fairness.

It seemed like nasty stuff. And it would haunt the Games. Hours before they began, a 21-year-old Georgian on a practice run lost control and died on what was widely considered the fastest luge track in the world.

“That death queued compelling suggestions that Canada’s lust for gold … wasn’t simply un-Canadian, it was murderous,” wrote Dave Feschuk, sports columnist for the Toronto Star.

As the Games progressed, it also became clear that operation Own the Podium had the effect of spurring non-Canadian athletes to prove it wrong. It eventually became the butt of jokes.

Some athletes have captured the hearts of Canadians, notably freestyle skiing gold medalist Alexandre Bilodeau — the first Canadian to win gold on Canadian soil. He credits his brother, who has cerebral palsy, for his inspiration.

Another national high occurred Monday night, when Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won gold in ice dancing.

Still, by the end of the first week of events, Canada’s Olympic barons were already eating crow. Medals did not materialize in some of Canada’s most promising events, particularly downhill skiing and speed skating.

Canadian speed skater Denny Morrison, on whom many hopes lay, blamed his 13th place finish in the men’s 1,000 meters and his ninth place finish in the 1,500 meters on the Own the Podium strategy. He complained that, prior to the Games, Canadian officials forced him to stop training with American gold medalist Shani Davis because they didn’t want Davis to benefit from the extra resources given to Canadian athletes.

Then came the game the whole country had waited for – Sunday’s hockey showdown between Canada and the United States.