Olympic chest-beating: Deadly or just poor taste?

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.

With outstanding goaltending by Ryan Miller, Team USA slapped down Canada by a score of 5-3. The headline in Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, the Toronto Star, pretty much said it all: “Call it a star-spangled spanking.”

Canada’s hockey medal hopes are still alive, but the defeat means the team will face a much more difficult road ahead, including games against Germany and Russia.

Wrote sports reporter, Paul Hunter: “It’s not the end of the world for Canadian hockey. It will just seem that way for a day or two.”

The overall standings told the story: By Monday evening, the United States was in first place with 24 medals; Canada, with 10 medals, was in fifth. Operation Own the Podium was a bust.
Canadian Olympic officials now talk of hopefully winning second place overall, which amounts to re-branding their program, Almost Own the Podium.

“How is it that Americans, one medal ahead of Canada in Turin four years ago, have almost as many gold medals as Canada has medals so far this time around?” asked a sports writer with the Toronto Sun.

“If we knew what they were doing, we’d be doing it too,” Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, was quoted as saying. "The U.S. is having a tremendous Games. They are making it very tough for us.”

The failure capped a difficult first week for the Vancouver Games. After the Georgian’s death, officials reduced the length of the luge track to make it safer. Then, the ice at the Richmond Oval was denounced as “laughable” by Dutch speed skater Jan Bos. Criticism got worse when the ice-resurfacing machine malfunctioned during the men’s 500 meters, causing lengthy delays and frayed nerves.

Outside of the events, organizers faced a popular revolt over a high chain link fence placed around the Olympic cauldron, preventing people from getting a clear picture of the flames. The fence was eventually moved closer to the cauldron and gaps cut out of it for pictures to be snapped unobstructed.

The biggest problem, of course, has been the weather — more precisely, the lack of snow. It’s never a good sign for the Winter Games when crocuses sprout. But what did the International Olympic Committee expect when they awarded the Games to a city that typically has mild winters?

Vancouver 2010 organizers can be blamed, however, for choosing Cypress Mountain as a venue, even when its close proximity to the city made it more likely to get rain than snow. Within days, 20,000 tickets were refunded for cancelled events there.

Compounding the bad news at the end of the first week was the decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party to mix politics with sports. The party launched a video campaign that tries to use pride in Canadian athletes to boost its stagnant support. “With our strong leader, Canada will continue to compete with the world’s best,” the video proclaims, as if the success of Canada’s athletes depends on Harper remaining prime minister.

The campaign comes from a prime minister under fire for suspending Parliament until after the Winter Games. He’s widely accused of blocking parliamentary inquiries into allegations his government did nothing to stop Canadian soldiers from transferring detainees to Afghan jails, where they were tortured.

Harper’s critics say he’s hoping a stack of Canadian medals will distract from his troubles. So far, Canadian athletes aren’t cooperating.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the fact that Canada had won 10 medals by Feb. 22, 2010.