Cheering for our athletes and ourselves -

Cheering for our athletes and ourselves

ANDREW COYNE: We have all, to a greater or lesser extent, undergone a change in national temperament


Cheering for our athletes and ourselves

People are talking about a wave of patriotism washing across the country as Canadians cheer on their Olympic athletes. I’m sure this is true, but why? What is it based on? Why exactly should we get excited because a Canadian athlete wins a medal—because our guy slid on a piece of wood down a snowy incline faster than their guys did? It’s clear why the athlete himself might be excited. But how is that a measure of our collective self-worth?

These are more than philosophical questions. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, including $117 million targeted at elite athletes through the “Own the Podium” program, on the premise that we should get excited about our athletes’ achievements. Of course that implicates us in a simplistic sense: our dollars, we hope, will buy more medals than theirs will. But—leaving aside whether that’s the highest and best use of scarce public dollars—is there anything more to it than that? Why should we care whether “we” win any medals? What’s it got to do with us?

The answer, I think, is that the success of any one individual, in sports as in other fields, is not wholly attributable to that individual. It is also a collective endeavour. It emerges from a culture, and while the talent and effort of each individual are plainly of supreme importance to their success, the likelihood of such individual successes, on average and in the aggregate, will be the greater or lesser depending on the culture that surrounds them, and the cultural attributes with which they are imbued.

There is a reason we talk of “German engineering,” or “Japanese quality” (at least, we used to). It isn’t that, by some random accident of birth, Germany happens to be endowed with an abnormally high number of superior engineers. It is because something in the culture of Germany places a premium on engineering excellence, and will accept nothing less. The meticulousness and attention to detail for which the Germans are known is not a myth, or a stereotype (though obviously it does not apply in every case). It is something they learn from each other.

Think of those extraordinary flowerings of human culture that happen every now and then: Florence in the quattrocento, or Elizabethan London. We can marvel at the individual genius of a Shakespeare. But we have also to reckon with the remarkable generation of artists who were his contemporaries. Was there something in the water? Or did each bootstrap the others to higher levels of accomplishment? You’re Kit Marlowe, and you’ve just written a play you think is rather good. But then you go to Will Shakespeare’s latest, and suddenly you are made to see what a truly great play looks like. So you go back and rewrite. You raise your standards.

I hesitate to compare luging to Shakespeare. But something of the same dynamic must explain why some countries develop a culture of winning, and others do not. To be sure, Olympic success correlates fairly closely with more mundane variables such as income (the richer the country, the more money it can spend on its athletes) or population (the more people it has, the higher the chances of producing a superior physical talent). But then you come upon the outliers, like Norway in the Winter Games or Australia in the Summer Games, who win medals out of all proportion to what mere numbers would predict.

This country used to be content to win a handful of medals at the Olympics, summer or winter. You could say we were more serene in our sense of self, less caught up in such arbitrary measures of national achievement. Or you could say we were complacent. At any rate, somewhere along the way we decided that it mattered to us to win at other sports, the way it has always mattered to us to win at hockey.

We didn’t just invest a lot of money in it, or harness the kinds of high-tech scientific expertise described in that Maclean’s cover story a few weeks back. Something shifted in the culture: in our expectations, certainly. Whether we have also developed the habits of mind and qualities of character that are required to meet those expectations is less settled. You can see it most clearly in the women’s speed skating team: it isn’t just talent or training that explains their remarkable success, but a shared psychological state—a culture of winning—one that still eludes, say, the men’s alpine team.

So yes, when Canadian athletes win Olympic glory, we are entitled to cheer. It does have something to do with us. We have all, to a greater or lesser extent, taken part in that change of national temperament, and as such their achievement is, in whatever part, our achievement, a collaborative effort, a culture. I call it a culture of winning, but it’s really a culture of excellence, a refusal to settle for second-best, and with any luck their example will spread into other areas of our national life. We don’t have enough such examples. There aren’t many things we make here that we make better than anyone else.

But these athletes were made here. They are what we have chosen to be. They are made of us, and are helping to make us in their turn.


Cheering for our athletes and ourselves

  1. "IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

    But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings." Boston Globe, August 2007

    I just finished reading this article and then came across yours. You two provide food for thought this morning.

    I wish our focus on excellence would spread wider into community but I am not hopeful. I think it is just happenstance that Cons are in power at moment. I think Own The Podium idea would have been completely different if Libs in charge.

    Another reason why people are interested in Canadian athletes is that many of them come from smaller communities and people know them. People are cheering for someone from their community, not just their country.

    • The article is about Canadian self steam and patriotism, and here you comes to indirectly criticize immigrants and also the Conservative government.
      Please, keep your comments to the article, not to your proselitism.

    • When Sweden lost to Belarus in the 2002 Olympics, the leading Swedish daily ran a front page consisting of mugshots of each player, his NHL salary, and the word "traitors". They won gold in 2006. Consider Russia, or The Motherland, as the Russian players call it. What I'm getting at is that in team sports especially nationalism would seem to have an advantage, due in part to Putnam's theses noted above , over post-national countries like Canada. Trust is really important in team sports and diversity diminishes trust not only between different groups but even within groups.

      Alternatively, Georges St. Pierre's win over BJ Penn was a victory of pluralism over xenophobia. GSP has an Iranian head coach, a Jewish trainer, black training partners, and so on, and travels and trains with the best anywhere and everywhere, whereas the intensely xenophobic BJ surrounded himself with similarly bigoted yes men and got his ass kicked.

      To me, we as a state chose equality over excellence a long time ago, and that permeates every aspect of society, including sports. That, and a lack of unity, is why we've generally sucked.

      • I've never lived there, but last time I was in Canada, I noticed that there's a maple leaf in every other commercial on TV. What to make of that? Sure, commercials lie in all sorts of ways, but I promise, that maple leaf is nakedly appealing to *something*. I don't think you guys are post-national. You're still adorably self-effacing, to be sure, but I think in your heart of hearts you are awake to just how awesome Canada is. You've worked together, you've made good choices, you've built an amazing society in some of the most beautiful country in the world. From what I can tell you throw a pretty good party. Oh and you play a little hockey.

        You have absolutely no reason not to be proud.

  2. Dream. That is the venue of Renaissance, Revolution and Revival. In the individual, a dream of running so fast you escape gravity can train the muscles to do just that. The fastest sprinter floats above the ground most of the race. A collective dream, of winning everything, has the same effect. It trains the psyche to resist it’s pull toward failure. Failure is the seen result, the plight of everyone who tries, when there can only be one winner. So a dream to ‘Own the Podium’ frees the psyche from the dynamic of place. The podium is a place. A dream to own it puts the podium on the ground, levels the field, and something I love: the stomping jump on it to claim the medal, pounding it further into the ground.

  3. I'd say it's there's a correlation with the fact that we've been voting conservative (believing in ourselves) versus voting liberal (not believing in ourselves; believing others need help or that we may need help ourself).

    • lol @ the disagrees. Fact is conservatives are better than lieberals.

      • Fact is, the Liberals can spell better than the Conservatives.

  4. Great article & comments (excepting the typical political spin). OTP is nothing more than Hollywood braggadocio. What it really means is Off The Podium, On The Prowl, On The Phone, & enjoying The Outdoor Pageant ! Next time Canada, find a more fitting slogan & symbol, one that will truly inspire our athletes without the pressure of having to live up to our COC's vicarious needs. How about the a pic of Joannie Rochette wrapped in a Canadian flag, hands raised to her Mom, with Dad & crowds applauding in the background as she accepts her gold. This is the true Canadian psyche – quiet, decent, respectful, confident, determined & able to compete with anyone on this planet (Other Politicial Turkeys excluded). It's this NICE attitude that truly defines Canadians to the rest the world & separates us from our American cousins. And to the woman's hockey team, celebrate as a true Canadian, drink that well deserved beer, enjoy the party, & give a good hockey spat & finger to those pompous & self indulgent members of the IOC (International Old boys Club).

  5. Having been on this earth & in this country for some 49-years thus far, I believe that it is indisputable that we Canadians are evolving , "maturing", as a people, but that this is part of an ongoing process rather than being triggered by any one single event.

    My kids have never felt the Canadian cultural crynge of inferiority or identity angst that I recall so clearly in my youth.

    As we become more comfortable in our own skin and overcome our collective adolescent insecurities, it is natural to feel both more capable and deserving of achieving greatness. In a sense we as a nation are seeking to become, to actualise a greatness that is worthy of such a country as Canada.

    • You've summed it up nicely Russ.

  6. Mr. Cameron,
    We Americans are nice, and anybody that says otherwise gets a punch in the nose. THAT WAS A JOKE, I REALLY DON’T WANT TO PUNCH YOUR NOSE, SIR. IT’S CALLED IRONY (look it up id you don’t believe me). I thought, however, that your comment was below the belt. Trashing my countrymen must be the last acceptable bigotry left in your country.
    I think that Mr. Russ in Winnepeg makes the better point. Canada has developed a larger role in the world, apart from the USA. It takes some “growing up” to fit into the new paradigm. My country didn’t just become what it is in a decade, it TOOK decades to take the role we have. Many established countries have had to adjust over the last 50 years, so does Canada.

    • Nothing personal Paul, but the real irony is that both our countries are still growing up. Both our political systems are grid locked between left & right, both our militaries are engaged in a senseless war, both our economies will be held hostage for decades, & both our medical systems are an expensive albatross. By world standards, Canadians are considered nicer only because we're more reserved & we don't have that in-your-face & boisterous attitude that a lot of your countrymen display. It's also why so many Americans travel with Canadian emblems … we seem to be more accepted. And without firing any more low blows, we didn't rape the world's economies with greedy & out of control bankers. As multi-cultural societies, we both have our share of bigotry, whether we admit it or not. And taking pot shots at each other is a long standing tradition (right Steven Colbert?). However, we love our American neighbours because we share the same value systems, ideals & the longest undefended border in the world! AS FOR NOSE PUNCHES, let's leave that for todays patriotic hockey game where one of us will receive GOLD & the other CROW! And rest assured, if Canada wins, we will behave like Americans! Aren't these games marvellous?

  7. Exactly. These are our representatives on the national stage. They were raised here. They are us.
    When they win, we win. And we should expect the best from them because Canada is worth the best.

    God speed.

  8. One thing is absolutely for certain, the "culture of winning" is NOT a socialist culture!