With the Olympic Games officially under way, the world’s gaze is firmly fixed on London. People in every competing nation will be cheering on their athletes and following the stories of inspiration, achievement and, sometimes, heartbreak that the Games always produce in mass quantity. Canadians will be especially interested in the outcomes because they will tell us whether our athletes can carry the momentum created by the remarkably successful Own the Podium program of the Vancouver Winter Games into venues that don’t involve snow or ice.
Canadians need little prompting to recall their athletes’ incredible performances at the Vancouver Games. The Canadian squad won more gold medals (14) than any other country and finished third in the total medal count (26), behind Germany and the United States. It was a vindication of the Own the Podium program, which was created in 2003 after Vancouver was awarded the Games. The program brought together the country’s winter sports federations and their funding partners in an effort to ensure Canadian athletes had the money and facilities to compete realistically against the perennially better-funded and better-trained (not to mention better-performing) athletes of other nations. It was above all a bid to end the era in which Canadian athletes returning from the Games congratulated themselves for setting personal bests as consolation for never even troubling the podium, let alone owning it.
Own the Podium’s goal at the Winter Olympics was to contend for No. 1 in total medals. Done. (The same goal is in place for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.) In these Games, the aim is more modest: to finish in the top 12. That goal is more difficult than it may first appear, because Canadian athletes will have to at least double the number of gold medals they have won in each of the past four Summer Games – which, sadly, is three.
By convention, the rankings are organized by gold-medal count, so that even in the 1996 Games in Atlanta, when Canada’s tally of 22 medals was the 12th most, the country officially finished 21st thanks to those three lone gold medals. Seven gold medals in 1992 earned Canada 11th spot at the Barcelona Games, but for the most part the country has ended Summer Games ranked somewhere in the 20s, in the same league as Belarus, Jamaica, Cuba, Norway and New Zealand. No offence is meant to these countries, but they are far smaller than Canada. The Own the Podium program has challenged Canada to punch above its demographic weight in the 2012 Games, and it has put its money where its mouth is. According to the Own the Podium website, it has more than doubled the funding available to our athletes competing in London ($96-million) compared with those in the 2008 Beijing Games ($44-million), when Canada finished 19th and once again was stopped at three gold medals. This funding increase alone counts as one more success for the program; now it is the athletes’ turn to prove that Canadians can compete in all seasons in the modern Olympic era.
Ah yes, the modern Olympic era. There are those who are turned off by the nationalism engendered by medal counts; by the steady infiltration of the Games by professional athletes; by doping scandals; by the omnipotent International Olympic Committee and its over-zealous, to-the-point-of-ridiculous protection of its trademarks; and by the corporate sponsorships and advertising that run rampant throughout the Games.
It’s true: The year is not 1912; the athletes are not amateurs drawn from police departments and the ranks of the elites; there is no tug-of-war competition (Sweden won); and London is not turn-of-the-last-century Stockholm (where, it has to be said, Canada won just three gold medals).
This is 2012, and like all the Games of the modern television era, the London Olympics will produce their share of powerful stories. Take women’s boxing, making its first appearance at the Games. Mary Spencer, a 27-year-old Ojibwe from Ontario, could become the first North American aboriginal woman to win Olympic gold. That alone would make the London Games historic and remarkable, but it is just one of dozens of potentially astounding and moving scenarios. From the unmatched athleticism of the track athletes, swimmers, divers and gymnasts to the brute force of the wrestlers and judoists, the seemingly effortless synchronicity of the rowing teams and the unimaginable stamina of the marathoners, the Games are the ultimate celebration of human physical accomplishment and desire. You just have to know where to look.