It was all an elaborate ruse.
As that great Olympic historian Maxwell Smart once said: The old “we overestimated our medal chances” trick. Works every time.
Halfway through the 2010 Olympic Games, or thereabouts, the tall foreheads of the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own The Podium issued a mea culpa, admitting — or pretending to admit (clever!) — that the whole concept might have been a bit overbaked.
Though it was meant to inspire a “dream big dreams” ethos in Canadian athletes and Canadians in general, OTP had been misinterpreted by our neighbours to the south — whose approval we crave above all others — and by our British colonial masters, and even by a few of our own rats leaping off the ship prematurely, as braggadocio of the worst sort.
And heaven knows, bragging goes against all the values we Iceholes (thanks, Stephen Colbert) are conditioned to respect.
So we turtled. Our bad. Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend.
And then came the clubhouse turn, and an amazing thing happened. We started to own the podium … by accident. The other podium. The one the International Olympic Committee — and everyone on Earth other than North Americans — recognizes as the true measure of the sporting nations: gold medals, baby.
Not the loose change the Americans have been scooping up at every turn. Not the, er, minor medals. Gold.
And so, even as the United States ran away with the total medals race — the Americans, truly, dominated those gorgeous wooden podiums that our community artisans fashioned from native woods — it hit us right between the eyes, sometime on Friday, as we looked at Canada’s numbers and what was left on the table in the final weekend:
We could do this thing.
The males of the Canadian finally checked in with two golds at short-track, then came Saturday and an inspirational team pursuit title in long-track speed skating, and then Jasey-Jay Anderson came from a mile back to win the snowboard giant slalom and Kevin Martin’s rink stayed perfect to win the curling gold … and lo and behold, it was right there to be had.
It came down to the gold-medal match in men’s hockey — and when you think about it, no other crucible would have been appropriate — to decide whether Canada, after all the hand-wringing and head-hanging and second-guessing of our motives, would win 14 gold medals at these Games, the most by anyone at a single Winter Olympics in history.
”I think Canadian athletes came in with the belief that they could inspire a nation to believe in itself,” said COC president Mike Chambers, officiating at his last one of these post-mortems. “And that’s what they have done.”
Not everyone, apparently, was a fan of the program.
”Take a look at these Olympics and how excited Canadians are. It has been incredible seeing all these young people watching, learning and being inspired. To me that is the value of sport. If you can’t see it, you’re blind,” said the great Clara Hughes, after winning her bronze in the 5,000 metres at age 37.
”If you’re going to base this on medals, I don’t know what planet you are on.”
And that’s all right, as far as it goes. No one ever needs to doubt that Hughes’s heart is in the right place.
But the young people watching and learning aren’t being inspired by the 37th-place finishers we used to have so many of, on our Olympic team. As shallow and unworthy as it might be to focus on medals, if Hughes is honest with herself, she will admit that her own inspiration to take up speed skating — the sight of Gaetan Boucher “dying in the 1,500 metres in Calgary” — was only a poignant moment because Boucher was a four-time Olympic medallist who had won two golds four years earlier in Sarajevo.
Canadians needed something to shoot for, and OTP chose to aim high — and darned if it didn’t work.
”Well, obviously Own the Podium worked,” said Kevin Martin. “All the funding, giving the athletes a chance and having the Games in Canada — it’s all come around the way people were hoping it would. It’s been amazing.”
Sure, the record was an accident. Sure, it’s revisionist history to suggest that the reason Canadians didn’t win as many medals as projected was that they were all trying for gold — all or nothing — and some, like the alpine skiers and speedskaters, died by the sword.
But quite apart from having won more medals than in Turin four years ago — two more — Canadian athletes won twice as many gold medals here as they have ever won before at an Olympic Winter Games. Something made that happen.
Zero gold medals in Calgary, 14 in Vancouver. Twenty-two years.
That part is no accident.
Because it wasn’t just 26 medals, including 14 gold and one of the greatest bronze medals you will ever see, through your tears: that of Joannie Rochette, who was so perfect to be the Canadian flag-bearer for the closing ceremony.
It was another 23 finishes in fourth or fifth place, a total of 71 top-eights. It was the way the city and the country wrapped their arms around these athletes and these Games in a way we’ve never seen before.
”The memory I will take from this was that it was a fantastic Games in a beautiful setting put on by a really proud city,” said USA Nordic combined athlete Bill Demong, who carried the flag for the Americans into the closing ceremony.
”This was nation building at its best,” said COC president-elect Marcel Aubut, and if you hadn’t been here and experienced it, you’d have dismissed that as so much political hot air.
”Canada has taken a stand for sport. We have turned a corner, and we must never look back.”
For these Games to be the unifying, galvanizing force they have been to Canadians, the team had to do well. The Vancouver Organizing Committee knew that. OTP was born out of home-Olympics opportunity and the certainty that whatever was necessary to make the most of it had to be done.
The visionaries who set OTP in motion knew that Canadians had to win medals, because “tried real hard” gets old after a few dry Olympic days. The medals came in an amazing rush in the second week, built to a crescendo on the weekend and spilled over in a moment of unbearable sweetness at the very end, when Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal won the gold, and nailed down the record.
”It’s the coolest thing, to be part of that record that was set by all of our Canadian teammates,” said Jarome Iginla. “We knew, as players, that we had a chance to help set that record, and to join the women hockey players in winning gold.
”We’re very proud of that.”