The 2014 Olympic Winter Games are officially in the books and well, wow. Once again Canada has come out of the Winter Games looking like a powerhouse of winter sport. The accomplishments of our athletes at these games cannot be overstated but we should take a moment and reflect on this phenomenon because you see, it wasn’t always like this.
It’s worth looking back a ways, all the way back to say, the Nagano games in 1998. In those games we considered ourselves a winter Olympics type country sure but how did we fare? We won women’s gold in curling and men’s silver. Six gold medals for our athletes and a total of 15 medals overall. All in all, this was considered a respectable showing, not amazing and not unduly disappointing. Four years later in 2002 we had what I’ll call a “similar” showing by capturing 17 medals in total, 7 of them gold. Nice, nothing spectacular but…respectable.
As Canadians we tend to have a very particular attitude about these things. We strive for respectability and except for a very few areas, we are rarely inclined to take the risks required to push for something beyond that respectability. We don’t want to step on toes and we don’t want to look bad in our attempts. Generally, we are satisfied looking “good enough” for the most part.
Fast forward to July 2, 2003. Suddenly, good enough, isn’t. On this date Vancouver was awarded the rights to hold the the XXI Olympic Winter games and suddenly, we were going to be hosting the world. Now, we had done this before. In 1988 Calgary hosted a very successful Olympics. Successful in that we didn’t mess anything up. Canada won a total of 5 medals in Calgary, none of them gold. Everyone else had a great time, we smiled and waved, thanked them all for coming then moved on. From a competitive standpoint, we barely showed up. Privately, this hurt. It hurt our pride to host the games and barely be there when it came time to hand out medals.
Vancouver had to be different. This time, as a host nation we weren’t simply going to host the games, no, we were going to show the world what this nation could do. February 2004 saw an unparalleled meeting of the Canadian sporting minds. Canada’s 13 winter national sport organizations, Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Sport Canada, WinSport Canada and VANOC all met to develop a plan that would become known as Own the Podium. The goal was no less than being the top nation at our own Olympic Winter Games in 2010. We had six years and one Olympic Games to work on our plan and so it was game on.
New approaches to sport in Canada were pushed. Funding for coaching and athlete development went up to levels never before seen and what did it get us? In 2006, just two years after the initialization of this project, Canada captured 24 medals in Turino, including our first men’s gold in curling. Suddenly the nation was awakened. Seven more medals than we had in the previous Games. No longer were we seeing the Olympics as a hockey tournament with some added events, no, we saw the games as a stage where we could show the world what Canada was truly made of. We had shown off our “True”, “North” and “Free” parts long enough, now it was time for the “Strong” to show through. We discovered something else in Turino. We discovered as a country, that though we are for the most part comfortable with our image as a congenial people, we also very much enjoyed the image as “winners” and fierce competitors. We came, we saw, we won and we liked it.
The results from Turino stoked a fire for Canadians. The country got behind the leadership of the Own the Podium project and we all started to believe that maybe, just maybe, we really could win those Vancouver Olympics. Funding continued and so did the efforts of coaches and athletes across the nation. Getting there and looking good wasn’t good enough anymore. We wanted more.
Vancouver was a triumph for our nation. We hosted a fantastic event but that wasn’t the sole goal. We stormed the games. We won 26 medals with more than half of those (14) gold and we truly showed the world what Canadian strength is. Still, we were very much in danger of reveling in our own success. We risked patting ourselves on the back and simply saying, “job complete, well done.” Within the curling world there was much speculation and consternation about the potential drop in funding levels post Vancouver.
What we saw however was that Canada as a nation liked success. We enjoyed being successful and rather than ramping down Own the Podium, we kept it up. We kept working towards the next opportunity to show what Canada had to offer. And that’s where the everything changed. We started out trying to make a big splash at our own Olympics but discovered that we were comfortable in our role as champions and weren’t all that eager to give it up. More than that, we all truly started to believe in ourselves. Sochi showed this belief. The vibe from Russia was different, even from Vancouver. In 2010 we were somewhat surprised at ourselves. Pleasantly surprised for sure but wow, look what we did. In Sochi, we expected it more. We had more faith that our champion athletes would succeed against the best in the world. In curling, for instance, Jennifer Jones and her rink were the class of the field. They stormed that tournament. For the men, I personally fielded any number of questions from friends asking “what was wrong with the men?”. I found it easy to tell them all to relax, to have faith. Brad Jacobs was the best we had to offer and our best is THE best.
Post Sochi, things are different. Canada has swagger. We have a new belief that we really (honestly) are the best and finally we feel no need to apologize for it. This country has been on a decade long journey to get here. What we need to do is recognize how we got here, thank those athletes who put us on top and then get back to work. The world is going to be coming after us and for the first time in a very long time we’re ready to to say “bring it”.