Olympics give Canada an image makeover

March 22, 2010

CALGARY, AB, Mar. 22, 2010/ Troy Media/ – In most Canadian towns, a wild-eyed, crazy-haired man dressed in spandex and swilling beer from a pitcher on Main Street might garner the attention of law enforcement and could lead to a night in the local lockup.

At the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, it created a folk hero and stirred polite, reserved Canadians to shout their patriotism to the world.

Jon Montgomery put his Russell, MB, heritage on display after winning a gold medal in skeleton racing for the host nation, parading through Whistler village like a triumphant emperor returning from battle. A passerby pushed that jug of beer into Montgomery’s hands, and the Olympic champion drained half of it in three gulps.

As Montgomery chug-a-lugged, Canada quaffed along. The party that was engulfing Vancouver was roiling in bars and homes from coast to coast. It was one moment, among many moments, that helped define these Games and redefine a country.

An un-Canadian plan?

For Vancouver 2010, Canadian sport officials crafted a $110-million high-performance funding program with the audacious moniker of Own the Podium. It sent a signal that Canada wasn’t at the Games anymore just to compete; it was there to win. The message was widely viewed as too brash, too conceited, too American, too un-Canadian.

But after hockey star Sidney Crosby scored the overtime goal to win Canada’s 14th gold medal, the most ever for any nation at the Winter Games, the party’s final hurrah grew even grander. Critics at home and abroad ate crow. British sports officials, whose media were among the harshest critics in Vancouver, now say they’re looking to emulate Canada’s winning strategy as London prepares to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Wave of patriotism

Toronto sports-radio broadcaster Roger Lajoie said on air he was uncomfortable with the triteness of Own the Podium, but he marveled at the cultural revolution that seemed to sweep the nation.

“The intense patriotism shown was great. Overall 80 to 90 per cent of people we talked to on the air were very proud and quite pleased by where we positioned ourselves athletically,” said Lajoie, a FAN 590 and Rogers Sportsnet host. “Like Muhammad Ali said, ‘It’s not  braggin’ if you can back it up.’ ”

With each medal for the Maple Leaf, millions of Canadians shared the pride. But this wasn’t the Canada the world has come to know and love. Such gracious hosts, Canada waited 34 years after Montreal in 1976, then Calgary in 1988, to win a gold medal during an Olympics staged on home soil.

In a strange way, Canadians had been much more able to cope with the drug-cheating scandal that engulfed sprinter Ben Johnson at the Seoul Games in 1988. Canadians knew it was wrong, and much self-loathing accompanied a royal commission probe of the steroids issue. Ben Johnson made winning a dirty word in Canada and it has taken two decades to change that mindset.

The Baumann touch

Alex Baumann is the chief technical officer for Own the Podium, and it’s his job to identify Canada’s premier athletes and funnel money and training resources their way to turn them into Olympic medal winners. Baumann, a double gold-medal swimmer at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, left Canada for Australia after listening to Canadian sporting officials sugarcoat one poor performance after another. Down Under in the 1990s, Baumann helped turn Australia’s Olympic team into one of that country’s best ever for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney where they won 58 medals.

Baumann  returned to Canada in part because of a commitment from national sports organizations to make Canada the best.

“The Vancouver Games were a defining moment for Canada. I’ve never seen the general public be so engaged in the Games and wanting our athletes to do well,” Baumann said. “There’s been an attitude shift, or a cultural shift, in Canada, where we believe we should try to be the best and focus on excellence.”

On to the Summer Games

It’s a philosophy Baumann hopes to extend to the Summer Games, where Canada has finished no higher than 11th in the medal tables. “I’d like to see Canada as a top-six summer-sports nation. We have to be realistic, but ambitious . . .

“Coming away with 14 gold medals was a fantastic effort – nobody would have dreamed that,” Baumann said.  “Time will tell whether these Olympics made an impact on nation building, but I hope that setting a goal to be the best in the world translates beyond sport, whether that’s in business, the arts, whatever.”

Cable-TV hopes

Toronto sports agent Brian Cooper hopes Canadians’ newfound zeal for its Olympic athletes translates into year-round interest. He has joined forces with the Canadian Olympic Committee in a push to establish a new cable-television network devoted to broadcasting the endeavours of Olympic-caliber sport in the years between Games. His plan hinges on approval from broadcast regulators to mandate Canadian cable subscribers pay for the channels.

“I see our sporting culture being wiped out,” Cooper says. “My kids can watch more NCAA sports than Canadian sports. But, in Vancouver, I saw the unbridled Canadian patriotism that was unifying and galvanizing like never before.”

Italian journalist Massimo Lopes Pegna has covered many events around the world, and after watching Vancouver explode in street parties, he said, “In those Games, I became Canadian.”

In Washington, spokesman Hani Nasser said diplomats and bureaucrats from around the world soaked up the Vancouver spirit at the Canadian Embassy. The Games generated  goodwill and stoked the friendly rivalry  with the US.

‘A positive to hold onto’

One manifestation of that friendly rivalry was White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s appearance at a news conference in a Team Canada hockey jersey after losing a bet to his Canadian counterpart, Dimitri Soudas. Gibbs’ boss, President Barack Obama, had to ship two cases of beer to Prime Minister Stephen Harper over another Olympic wager. The presidential beer is on its way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Back in Vancouver, Janice Turner is savouring the final days of the Paralympics as her city suffers withdrawal from the 2010 Games. Homes are still adorned with little red and white lights, and flags fly everywhere.

“The Games were incredible – much better than I thought they would be,” said Turner, who has lived across Canada. “It’s the first time I’ve seen that kind of patriotism in Canada. Every train stop, people would break out into “O Canada,” and it didn’t feel goofy. It felt right. The time was right.

“People were hoping for something positive to hold onto – wanting to celebrate a very civil society. It was really that good.”

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