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No more Mr Nice Canada

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Ollie Williams | 18:22 UK time, Friday, 12 February 2010

Canada. The "nice" country with an international reputation for friendly anonymity. But beneath those earnest smiles lies a dark, dark secret more than 30 million Canadians want laid to rest in the next two weeks.

No Canadian has won Olympic gold on home soil. Or ice, or water. They have had two attempts - the Summer Games in Montreal in 1976, and the Winter Games in Calgary 12 years later - and failed miserably on each occasion.

This time, that had better change.

"These Games are ours, and we are going to own the podium. Our target is whatever number of medals it takes to be number one," is the proclamation from Marcel Aubut, President-elect of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

"Owning" these Olympics has been more than a buzzword in Canada for years and "own the podium" is more than a sweet turn of phrase. It is an entire initiative, driving the team forward through a series of money-spinning, performance-enhancing government and corporate partnerships.

But it will mean nothing if the Canadians do not win three things: a busload of medals, at least one gold, and the men's ice hockey.

"Whatever it takes to be number one" isn't entirely accurate, however. It doesn't mean topping the medal table in a way the British team, for example, would understand. The Canadians want more medals than anyone else - but they don't care what colour.

So Norway or the United States might win the most golds, but as long as the 206 Canadian athletes rack up enough gold, silver and bronze medals between them to post a bigger overall total, that counts as success.

Melissa HollingsworthCanada's world number one slider, Melissa Hollingsworth, tries not to look 'nice'

"Not winning a home Olympic gold is an incredibly deep wound," Bev Wake, the Vancouver Sun newspaper's Olympics editor, told us.

"We're the only country in the world to have hosted the Olympics and not won a gold there, and we've done it twice. It's tragic. We know we'll win several golds this time but it's a big deal.

"The Canadian government has invested a lot of money in Own The Podium. If we don't do really well, there's a sense that future funding may be in doubt. So it's really important from that perspective and there's a lot of pressure and expectation on athletes."

Curling and ice hockey are the two sports Canada would traditionally count as strengths. But the Own The Podium programme has sought to broaden Canadian Olympic prowess with the goal of threatening the medals in every discipline.

As a result, that "nice" image is starting to slip. Geniality has given way to a single-minded pursuit of the podium that to some, including British athletes, has manifested itself in slightly unpleasant fashion.

For example, the Canadians stand accused of monopolising track time in Whistler, enjoying 10 times more training on the Olympic circuit than their rivals. You may think that's not nice. Not Canadian. But the current Canadian Olympic president, Michael Chambers, isn't having a bit of it.

"We're still going to be nice," he insists, "but we're going to be nice - and winning.

"We think, for these particular Games, we're going to top the medal table. But Canadian competitors will be within the bounds of the rules, and within the bounds of competing and training ethically."

What remains to be seen is how nice the Canadian fans are to their team, and that all depends on living up to the hype. Huge flags adorn the Vancouver skyscrapers, "Go Canada" banners obscure every window, and proud parents pass on final good luck messages knowing whole neighbourhoods are holding their breath for their children.

As I walked through the centre of Vancouver on Friday, an advert played on a giant screen. It showed a man walking ahead of an icebreaking boat, bearing down on him through the ice. Is that how it feels to be a Canadian athlete: the hopes of a nation closing in?

"Competing in your own country brings it to a different level - it's connected to everyone you know, right down to your family, and if it's not properly guided it can become a distraction," advises Nathalie Lambert, a former Olympic short track gold medallist who is now the Canadian chef de mission.

"But if you know you can perform well enough to win a medal, that's based on skill and past experience - so you come with the confidence that you can deliver.

"There's a big boost from being around friends and from having more than 30m people cheering for you. Even though as an athlete it's typical to say 'we want to win', as a Canadian it hasn't been in the past. But the athletes have been saying for weeks they have never felt more ready."

Manuel Osborne-ParadisManny Osborne-Paradis faces up to Canadian expectations, and microphones

Who will be the first Canadian ready enough to earn that historic home gold? Saturday brings the first medal events and the first opportunities: for downhill skier Manny Osborne-Paradis, world moguls champion Jennifer Heil and speed skater Charles Hamelin.

"We're really optimistic that the first gold will come early," says Wake. "We have a shot at downhill because our skiers know that mountain: Manny grew up skiing Whistler, there's a good chance with him.

"Jennifer Heil has to be the favourite in moguls, and Charles Hamelin could win three or four medals at these Games. We hope one of those three comes through, and all three would be awesome."

However, Wake sounds a final note of caution. It doesn't matter what Canada does at the Games if one thing is overlooked: men's ice hockey gold.

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"We talk about Own The Podium and how we could top the medal standings and exceed all expectations," she says. "But if we don't get that gold in men's hockey, the Games won't have been an entire success.

"We're all about hockey and that's the one medal everybody really wants."

It's easy to talk in the run-up to an Olympics. Easy to make predictions, easy to build yourself up into something you're not. On Friday, the torch is lit and the Games begin. For Canada, the time for nice hockey is over.


  • Comment number 1.

    I find this head line very misleading, particularily in the spirit of the games, the Olympic Games. Try a bit of objective journalism.

  • Comment number 2.

    "failed miserably" a Canadian I can't help but be put off by this statement. It's true, we didn't win any "official" medals. But you're forgetting that the 1988 winter olympics had "demonstration sports" which included curling & short-track speed skating - all of which are now official sports and Canada DID medal in these sports (gold in women's curling!). So I wouldn't say that we failed miserably at all. Also, the olympics no longer include demonstration sports, so its unfortunate that the medals can't be made official by means of retroactive reward. Just a little history lesson for you Ollie!

  • Comment number 3.

    As a Canadian, I'm glad to hear someone call it like it is. We DID fail miserably to win Olympic gold in Calgary and Montreal. Unlike the way GB, China and Australia pumped huge effort and cash into their athletes prior to these nations hosting the Games, in Canada our athletes were living below the poverty line!

    This time, it's different and a great deal of cash and training facilities have been created, and having a big ambition to top the medal total table is the right mindset to have.

    Let the Games begin!

  • Comment number 4.

    Let's just say this, there best hopes for medals seem to be in Curling and Ice Hockey, especially in hockey where the sport is like a religion in Canada. I think that if the Canadians fail to win a medal in hockey there will be an investigation. It won't matter what else happens because their national pride will be severally wounded. That's how much hockey means to canada.

  • Comment number 5.

    We in Canada have been gearing up for these games since the 2006 Olympics.
    In 2006 we came 3rd in the total medal count, with 24. One less than 2nd place USA with 25 medals. Germany 1st in the medal count with 29. Let me not mention the population differences.
    We Canadians feel we can finish 1st in our home Country's 2010 Olympics.
    We are going to "OWN THE PODIUM"

  • Comment number 6.

    Was there was an increased risk of tragedy at the sliding centre as a result of building a­ super-fast track (faster than most if not all world cup venues) and then restricting access to it for non-Canadian athletes ahead­ of the games?

    These sled racers need to learn the best lines and every track is different, in the same way F1 race circuits (for example) have different characterists that must be learned in order to be competitiuve.

    Maybe now that someone unfamiliar with the track has been killed IOC should look at the regulations that allow the gamesmanship­ interpretation of rules to favour home athletes.

  • Comment number 7.

    Ollie, one minor comment - the film you saw on the big screen in Robson Square in the centre of Vancouver is actually called "Nummer Acht - Everything is going to be alright" by Guido Van Der Werve (you can see a still from it here - It's part of an exhibition of video art that the Vancouver Art Gallery is showing outdoors. There are some real gems amongst the films and I'd recommend anyone in Vancouver to spend a bit of time soaking up the atmosphere and watching the films!

  • Comment number 8.

    I made a similar comment Ricadus and agree.

    My comment:

    "The choice of Canada to run this 'Own the Podium' policy, denying other countries access to the tracks was not only shocking for flying in the face of the Olympic spirit, but must now be seriously scrutinised for a potential link between it and accidents, including the terrible fatality today.

    These competitors have insufficient time to learn the courses slowly and surely, and in order to compete may well be taking unreasonable risks.

    The Press should be all over this"

  • Comment number 9.

    NichUnderdown - that's a really interesting clarification, thanks. I should go back and watch a bit more. It definitely caught my attention.

    bmn - the whole point is that the Canadian approach has grated with some because they're monopolising track time etc, which is, indeed, not in the spirit of the Olympics in the eyes of some. I'm not saying I agree with those people (I bet the British team does similar at London 2012, for example), but I disagree that any of the above is the result of a reporting bias.

    slippery_pete - I'm sorry, but if you have to bring up demonstration sports as an argument for Canadian success at those Games, that strengthens my point. As highthief points out, other Olympic hosts spent huge amounts ensuring they featured high up the medal table at their own Games. Demonstration sport medals simply won't cut it.

    ricadus - I'm sure we'll hear a lot more about the track. Having written the above blog at a time when this entire country (almost) was buzzing with excitement, it's horrible and tragic that 12 hours later the atmosphere has changed so markedly. And it certainly puts medals and ice hockey matches into perspective.

  • Comment number 10.

    Ricadus and RPM - while in principle I agree with you that equal access should be the situation, this has been going on at every Olympics that I can remember. I recall in Salt Lake City the US restricting other nations from training on the bobsled and ski runs so as to advantage the US team. This situation is nothing new.

    Having watched the video of the luger's crash, I do wonder why there was no padding around that steel girder the poor guy flew into. It would seem a common sense thing to have done prior to opening the run up for training.

  • Comment number 11.

    highthief - no amount of padding would have saved his life. The only thing that could have helped would be a higher lip.

  • Comment number 12.

    "Curling and ice hockey are the two sports Canada would traditionally count as strengths..."

    There it is again. Don't be doing that. Try:

    "Curling and hockey are the two sports ..."

    Actually, people tend to forget that Elizabeth Manley did win the Gold at Calgary, but she was done out of it because she had the misfortune to be in one of the "judging" sports. Go back and watch the tapes if you doubt it.

    9. Ollie -

    Yeah, taking more than our share of practice times isn't right. That's not what Canadians are about.

    But it isn't that surprising. These games are being run by people who probably should never have been awarded the games in the first place. You often get the feeling that they have the attitudes of "wannabe-Americans". They're the kind of people who don't get "Chariots of Fire": so desperate to win, they can rationalize cheating to do it.

    It doesn't speak to our national values. If you have to cheat to win, the game isn't worth playing. You win fair and square, or not at all. (which, by the way, is why we despise the "judging" sports). They are, in that respect, embarrassing.

    What the Winter Olympics are supposed to be about, or more properly international sport generally, is the Norwegian Cross-Country Skiing coach who saw that a competitor had broken a ski pole in the middle of the race, and who immediately and without hesitation stepped forward to lend her his pole, even though it meant his own athlete would finish fourth.

    It's about the sailors who stopped in the middle of the race to pick up a competitor who had fallen in the water, thereby losing their chance to win.

    It's about the expatriate Indian community in Canada providing uniforms and equipment for Indian athletes.

    It's about a boxer from Northern Ireland winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, the record player breaking, and the whole auditorium singing "Danny Boy" just the same.

    That is what international sport is about.

  • Comment number 13.

    As a Vancouverite, the death of the young fellow from Georgia deeply affected us all here. It was a tragic accident. I wish people could get their facts straight before making such derogatory comments made by Ricadus and RPM . The head of the Georgian Federation advised the press that this young luger had been training here on the site for 30 days so he was familiar with the track. Also, overall experience in any sport needs to be considered and I think officials are looking at this as well. Unfortunately he made a terrible mistake going into the turn and could not correct it. It doesn't matter what sport you're in, once you go airborne, you're in trouble. The track has been modified and they are starting from the women's start. They have heightened the retaining wall on that corner as well.

    Unfortunately, the Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger" meant for the athlete to give his or her best during competition, and to view this effort as a victory in itself has taken on a whole different meaning today. Because of technology today, the speeds these athletes are reaching whether it’s lugging, skiing, etc. are putting athletes at risk. We’ve seen this especially with women’s ski teams and even the women’s moguls in last night’s competition, the times were very fast. I think this issue needs to be addressed for the safety of all athletes.

    We have all seen those wonderful olympic moments, athletes and coaches helping each other and they are heartwarming. It wasn't an olympic moment but it still shows true Canadian character when in 2006, Calgarian Andrew Brash abandoned his second quest for the summit to Mt. Everest to help Australian climber Lincoln Hall, who had been left for dead by his team and other climbers from other countries, who passed by him without even trying to help him. Even though he was only 200 metres from the peak of Everest, Brash worked with other climbers to get Hall down the mountain so please don't say Canadians want to win at all cost, especially when a human life is at stake.

  • Comment number 14.

    Sorry to return to this blog so late but I think there is a point. About the powers that be in Canada in heaping unrealistic expectations on their athletes. I almost feel sorry for the Canadian Olympians. This should be a time for them to enjoy their home games, show their best and revel in competition agaist their fellow athletes. Not a time of cost-effective performance, benchmarked by bodies who clearly don't understand the heart of sports.

    I'm sure that all Canadian athletes try to do their very best but the pressure and expectations of the home games can prove excruciating, the more so if you "fail" to deliver. Even if you finish 2nd, 5th, among the top 10 or 20. All very good achievements, I think, in a field of the very best in each sport.

    The only one that Canada really "has to win" is men's hockey. (Hey, Canadians invented the game!) I'll be cheering for Canada all the way - except when they stand in the way of Finnish success. ;-) (I'm a Finn.)

    In conclusion, I think that Canada's reputation as "nice" people is still intact. I think people see the broader picture and discout any excesses during these games. The Olympics have not turned Canadians nasty.

    PS. I love the red mittens with the maple leaf that all the Canadian spectators seem to be sporting in cheering their own. And all other athletes as well. :-)


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