Canada Reborn

Own the Podium was more than just good sport. It was a picture of our country as it was always supposed to be.

Canada Reborn

Photograph by Brian Howell

For God’s sake don’t change the name.

Whether the Own the Podium program makes sense in overall policy terms can still be debated. The case for governments paying athletes to play games is far from clear, and it is easy to imagine all of the other uses that might have been made of the program’s $117-million budget.

But in terms of athletic excellence—winning medals—the program is an indisputable triumph. Do I need to rehearse the results? The most medals ever for Canada at a Winter Games, good for third place overall. The most gold medals of any country in these Games—indeed, more than any country has ever won at a Winter Games in their history.

As impressive was the breadth of the Canadian achievement. We medalled in nine different sports, spread amongst two dozen different athletes or teams. And lurking just off the podium, 23 fourth- or fifth-place finishers. All told, Canadians placed in the top five in 37 of the 86 events at these Games. Can any country match that?

It is difficult to convey how much of a change this is from the past. Until about 15 years ago, Canada had never won more than a handful of medals at any Winter Olympics, rarely even cracking the top 10 in the overall medal counts. And gold? Put it this way. The three gold medals Canada won on the last Saturday of the Vancouver Games was as many as it won in the entire 1994 Games. It’s as many as it won in the 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980 games combined.

Yet we now wake up to the reality that we have suddenly become a winter sports superpower, on par with such traditionally dominant nations as Germany and the United States, with many times our population. We aren’t just beating the world at hockey. We’re beating it at speed skating, at curling, at snowboarding and freestyle skiing and a bunch of other sports besides. Canada. Us.

It wasn’t just money that marked Own the Podium’s contribution to this change. It was a philosophy, an attitude, best expressed in that deliberately provocative name. We were going to shoot for the top, and we didn’t care who knew it—including ourselves. This seems elementary. Before you can achieve anything, you have to imagine yourself in the role. You have to see yourself as the kind of person who does that sort of thing. The point of Own the Podium was to get Canadians to see themselves as the kind of country who could finish first at the Olympics—to build a culture wherein Canadian athletes would see themselves as potential medal winners. It wasn’t enough just to hope it. You had to say it. Out loud.

Indeed, perhaps the surest sign of Own the Podium’s necessity is that it was controversial—as it remains, in some circles. It was too boastful, too arrogant, too…American. We were being disrespectful of our guests. We were setting ourselves up for failure. We were flying too close to the sun.

We can dispense with the last objection first, even without reference to our astonishing performance at these Games. It is true that we did not attain our stated objective of winning the most medals of any country. But does falling short of a goal mean we should not set one? How is failing an argument against trying? When was it decreed that no goal should be attempted that was not certain of success? The whole point of setting goals—worthwhile goals, at any rate—is that you might not achieve them.

As for the delicate sensibilities of other nations: come off it. Do we imagine that Germany, or the U.S., or the other sporting powers did not come to Vancouver with the intention of “owning the podium”? Maybe they didn’t say it in quite the same way. But they certainly meant it.

No, what really bugs the critics is not what Own the Podium says to other nations, but what it says to us: the picture it reflects of ourselves. For a country that succeeds so spectacularly in one area will be less forgiving of mediocrity in others. And mediocrity, for many Canadians, had become a balm. That, too, is changing: Own the Podium didn’t come out of nowhere, after all. It reflected a change in attitude as much as it produced it.

But it wasn’t so long ago that this was a country that feared free trade; that apologized to separatists for its existence; that freeloaded off others for its defence; that could not balance its budget or conquer inflation because, after all, it was just too hard. Afraid, ashamed, we sought solace in our own insignificance. At least we were nicer than other nations.

Even before the Olympics, there had been a great deal of gnashing of teeth over Canada’s supposed changing image abroad. People in other countries don’t like us as much as they used to, the critics wailed. But to the extent that’s even remotely true, we should understand why: they preferred us as doormats. Our “popularity” was strictly to do with our ineffectualness. We didn’t get in anyone’s way. We weren’t a threat. We were the milquetoast of the town.

But that never was the real Canada. The country that aimed for the middle, that dared to be modest, that coughed before it entered the room: that was a comparatively recent invention. Go back to the first half of the last century, before the nationalists started remaking us in their own image, and you see a different Canada: the Canada of Laurier and Leacock, when it was not just a goal, but an assumption, that this country, two steps out of the woods though it was, would be the next great power. By the end of the 20th century, the “century of Canada,” we would have 100 million people. World leaders? Top of the medals? Of course. This is what we were supposed to be.

“Before the year 2000,” the literary critic William Arthur Deacon wrote in 1933, “Canada’s world dominance will be as undisputed a fact as any commonplace of history.” Not only foremost in commerce and in culture, “she will exercise undisputed intellectual leadership . . . she will have the undiluted respect of the world, not only for the excellence of her own institutions, but also for the example of intelligent justice in both internal and external dealings. This will be the characteristic by which her golden age will be remembered, as Rome is acclaimed for her organizing ability.”

That brashness, that cockiness, never really went away. It just went underground. Even when, as in the national sport, it was staring us in the face, we ignored it when it did not fit our stereotypes of ourselves. But it is harder to ignore it now: not after these Games, and the massive, almost cathartic banshee yell of national pride it has brought on. Own the Podium? Hell yeah!

For me, this Olympics, and its effect on our sense of self, is summed up in two of our first gold medal winners, Alexandre Bilodeau and Jon Montgomery: the ego and the id of our national psyche. Bilodeau, with his manifest decency and humility, whose first thought on winning was of his disabled brother, is who we would like to be. Montgomery, the muscle-flexing, beer-swilling skeleton daredevil, who only took up the sport as a way to get to the Olympics, is who we are.

Or maybe there’s no contradiction between the two. Maybe what we have learned is this: that we can hold fast to those traditional Canadian virtues of compassion, generosity, and fairness, and still be aggressive, ambitious, and competitive as all get out. If that offends a few visiting British sportswriters, that is just a chance we are going to have to take.


Canada Reborn

  1. That last paragraph is key. As we move to a country unafraid to succeed, we must remember that if we set aside compassion, generosity, and fairness in pursuit of that success, we've already failed.

    • The last paragraph was my favourite paragraph as well.

      OTOH, this line confuses me…."The whole point of setting goals—worthwhile goals, at any rate—is that you might not achieve them."

      • I think he means that a worthy goal is inherently difficult, and therefore not guaranteed.

        • That sounds completely reasonable; I'm sure you are correct.

          I pointed it out because the sentence, as written, is completely bogus, which caught me off guard, coming from Mr Coyne.

  2. Nicely put, Andrew. The "Own the Podium" slogan really did cause a small debate about our national personality. I for one am glad that the name was chosen. Canada should be a nation that aims for excellence in all areas and welcomes competition and we need not be shy about that or for our collective pride in our country. We can always show our modesty by being gracious winners.

    • Yes. I agree with everything, except I don't think we've been being all that gracious. It's hard to tell, though, because I do agree this is a message that needs to get to us (Canada=Great) .

  3. Excellent article and I believe it to be bang on – except for one small point: the notion that the country that wins the most medals of any colour "wins" the Olympics: it has always been that the country that wins the most Gold places first in the Olympics.

    Counting quantity over quality is a North American abberation that started in the '70s, as a way to mitigate the sporting dominance of the USSR & eastern bloc.

    If you check the Olympic site or those in the UK, Australia, etc., we are ranked first for the Vancouver Olympic results.

    OTP was an absolute success and I believe that we are on the cusp of being a serious country – one that truly matters in the world – once again.

  4. Excellent piece, Andrew! It deserves to be read by the widest possible audience.

  5. Exactly right. This Olympics showed something in Canada's psyche that many of us were starting to worry had been completely killed off by decades of political correctness, pacifist nation-bashing, and neglect of the actual male-oriented, militarily successful, large-numbers-of-cute-animals-killed-for-their-fur history in the schools. Namely: love for our country. Not pious "our country is the best in the world" idiocy, but true love of country. The kind of patriotism that says "no, Canada isn't perfect but we love her anyway and we'll serve her interests or die trying."

    This Olympics did something I did not think a mere sporting event could accomplish. Wicked awesome.

  6. Yes, well, after winning comes ‘reliving’ the win. That’s how to keep the dream alive. So what do you say to the fact that for this games, we don’t ‘Own The Re-Runs’? That’s today’s story. George Strombopolous pointed that out the other night when he interviewed a gold medal winning bob- sledder. (what wa her name again???). He couldn’t show her winning run so he parodied it, but the media is solo hush hush right now about this issue. This ‘re-birth’ feels some kind of surrogacy to me.

    • Don't worry, Karen.. our government has promised in the Throne Speech to strengthen our copyright legislation so this shouldn't hap..oh.. wait..

      Hmm.. is it worse if our government lies to us, or if I find myself hoping they have?

  7. Great article.

  8. Petra Majdic (Petra Majdič) Vancouver 2010 Olympics…Her Story Of Willpower

    On YouTube, where the whole world goes to recapitulate new knowledge and nationalistic dreams, you find that the glorification of athletes (including our own) cannot show their recent performances. The CBC and CTV and Canwest have as much as the youtuber to work with. So the sellout is complete. Nationalism will grow and reside in the hearts of those who pay in a different way from those who can’t. Another argument in favour of a national broadcaster and the place of the public media to tell our stories. I really don’t want to view the VANOC presentation.

  9. Andrew Coyne, nationalist, is not an easy bird to classify.

    • i'm puzzled by this too. On the one hand it's perfectly fine to lose our false modesty, to assert ourselves[ although how we will do that in ways we never did before is not stated] to bang our own drum loudly and proudly – no argument from me. But Canada as ineffectual doormats, it's the only reason we were popular? Please expand AC. It seems I was under the misaprehension that some of that respect and liking was due to the fact we attempted to mediate, be the peace maker where we could, and where appropriate. Odd how AC seems to uses nationlism as a club to hit other nationalists over the head with.

      • agreed AC I am not convinced we are liked because we are doormats so much as we are seen as inoffensive (defined rightly or wrongly as not American), who are fairly progressive and peace loving folk.

      • Canada was never an ineffectual doormat. Canada walked over a doormat: I believe it's somewhere on the northern shores of France…

  10. The only reason Canadians won so many medals is because Olympics were held in Canada. There will be no success in any other Olympics, because to go to other country to compete for Canada athletes have to pay for themselves. Check this out ->
    “The CFF will fund the support staff, selected by the National Coaches and HPD, to support all selected athletes for this event. The athlete funding formula will be announced at the time of selection but all selected athletes should be prepared to cover the full cost (travel, hotel and meals) of taking part in this event (estimated to be $2500 to $3000).” http://www.fencing.ca/hiperf_news/2009-10_jrcdt_c… (page 8)
    "It has been noted that a committee or division may be spending resources unknowingly and in an unapproved adhoc manner." http://www.fencing.ca/policies/finance/financial_

    • Fencing has to get in line behind sports Canda does better in such as hockey, curling, speedskating, snowboarding, bobsleigh, luge, skeleton, cross country skiing, alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, figure skating, track & field, swimming, diving, gymnastics, trampoline, triathalon, cycling, mountain biking, wrestling, canoe & kayak, rowing, equestrian, tae kwon do…any that I left out?

      • I may be wrong about Canada doing better in Luge than Fencing

  11. I loved the article and loved the OWN THE PODIUM program. Like you said, is all about the attitude and this new philosophy. It is just going to get better!

  12. What a good article. I am a senior who was born in BC and always a very proud Canadian. Let's go back to the days when we stood for being Great.I do not have any respect for "bullies" and so many other Countries or their media used that tactic during the Olympics. Go Canada Go

  13. Enjoyed the article Andrew. Only time will tell…

  14. If we as a nation can only strut in undeserved vanity because a handful of our elite athletes eked out a thirtieth of a second faster than their elite athletes, then perhaps your Rome quote above is richly à-propos. How did the Roman Empire wind up its operations, I wonder…

  15. Own the Podium was more than just good sport. It was a picture of our country as it was always supposed to be.

    Has anything ever been so much written by so many about so little?

  16. "All told, Canadians placed in the top five in 37 of the 86 events at these Games. Can any country match that?"

    Um, the Americans won 37 medals – ie: placed in the top THREE in 37 of 86 events. So, ya, I think another country just matched (and easily beat) that.

    • Actually, Andrew's right. The U.S. had top 5 finishers in 34 events. They had 2 medals in 8 events, wheras Canada only had 2

  17. Everyone considered him the coward of the county
    He'd never stood one single time to prove the county wrong
    His Mama named him Tommy, the folks just called him yellow
    But something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong

  18. I can't help but to comment on the irony that Andrew's rhetorical question:
    "All told, Canadians placed in the top five in 37 of the 86 events at these Games. Can any country match that?"
    appears, in my browser, appears exactly opposite a graphic showing that the US won 37 medals. As in, the US placed in the top three in at least 37 events. I know that there are some multi-medal events baked into the US's 37, but still…

  19. Great we won a few medals in some sporting events – Canada will soon rule the world. (insert rolling of eyes here) Let's spend our time, money and resources on things that really matter and then maybe we can have some real international respect.
    Sidenote: Regardless of how our athletes performed, I do not think that that the opening ceremony powwow and closing ceremony circus of inflatable beavers showed national pride.

  20. It was a rude name before, and it's still a rude name today.

    Perhaps "return to the podium we owned" would be a nice compromise?

  21. I don't regard sport as a metaphor for life. Nonetheless, Canadian Winter Olympic athletes performed magnificently in Vancouver. Well done, All!

  22. Well said, Andrew. To listen to the self-righteous scolds calling into Rex Murphy's cross-country check in during the Olympics was to listen firsthand the kind of hand-wringing embrace of mediocrity as national identity that you rightly deride in this piece. "Telling people you want to finish first isn't Canadian," they whined, "Whatever happened to being content with just doing your best?" Thankfully, the incredible performance of our athletes at this Olympics, medal winners or not, has helped point Canadians to another reality: when we set high goals, we better ourselves. Go Canada Go!

  23. I wonder if our biathletes are subjected to the federal gun registry? Perhaps we could abolish that and use the cash to fund OTP.

  24. Very well put, Andrew. You framed very nicely what I think a lot of people were thinking without knowing they were. As for Own The Podium, it is just basic sports psychology. It doesn't matter what an athlete or a coach really thinks of his chances going into an event, he must always tell himself and others his goal is to win. To do any less is to guarantee a lesser result. If we want to succeed, we have to think that way as a nation, like it or not. Personally, I love it.

  25. YES!

    Canadians need to learn there's no shame in winning. The whole objective of OTP to me is to set aspirational goals for us to win. I like the attitude, I like the program, I like the name, and I definitely liked the results.

    Keep the program. Keep the name. And let the British press complain. They love tearing down winners.

  26. Very well put Andrew Coyne, a thought provoking article that was long overdue. Why did we end up this way? Is it due to playing second fiddle in the shadow of the mighty U S of A? When this country emerged out WWII it looked as if we would be a shining star, a very large country teeming with natural resources with a population of hard working, innovative people ready to take on the world. Where did we lose our direction? Say what you will about Don Cherry, he really was the start of Canadian patriotism over the last 20 years, it is why he remains so popular even today as he was one of the few, maybe the only Canadian celebrity 20 years ago to thump his chest and say that we live in the greatest country in the world.

  27. Great Article Andrew…..its about time we all become proud of what we were always capable of doing…without the arrogance. It is our time and we will do it proudly.

    Great Job!!

  28. I lived in Vancouver during the Olympics. It was sad how many loud louts were out yelling CA-NA-DA and being generally obnoxious. Canada may have turned a point where those outside of Quebec are becoming loud and proud, something like Australians.

  29. "That brashness, that cockiness, never really went away. It just went underground" 0 That says it all – it went underground because of the 'intellectuals' who told us what we were to feel and believe and they dominated the 'national' discussion. Thankfully someone is willing to say it!!!

  30. canada was headed towards greatness once upon a time – and then trudeau came along. Once the boomers have died off, historians of the future will consign trudeau to his rightful place in the shadows.

  31. Own The Podium was brilliant I am so proud of Canada with its Olympic success, it is about time! Those other countries push and help their athletes while we are holding the door open being polite. Canada is an amzing country from Quebec to Alberta to Newfoundland an amazing mosaic and this olympics galvanized us as a nation. I wa so proud, bursting with pride and still am. At 31 years of age I have seen what Canada can be . Dont change the name uless its gonna be dominate the podium. Canada was such a global player through WWII we were respected feared we may have been Americas little brother but we packed a whallup. I want to see Canada host another games really soon bring the winter games to Quebec City finally and do it as a Nation forget the politicians and their squabbling a summer games in Toronto or London or Winnepeg would be amazing. This is the greatest country in the world all of it it is about time Canadians woke up to that fact stopped whining and started winning! Hell yeah Own the Podium!

  32. This is a great article Andrew. I love how you explained well your insights and views.

  33. Andrew Coyne you really deserved it. I just love Canada in each and every thing. Go Canada go !!!!!

  34. The most medals ever for Canada at a Winter Games, good for third place overall. The most gold medals of any country in these Games—indeed, more than any country has ever won at a Winter Games in their history.

    I just love Canada.

  35. We medalled in nine different sports, spread amongst two dozen different athletes or teams. And lurking just off the podium, 23 fourth- or fifth-place finishers. All told, Canadians placed in the top five in 37 of the 86 events at these Games.

    That was great to see.

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