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Chris Rudge

Our unaccustomed swagger Add to ...

Victor Hugo observed that an invasion of armies can be resisted, "but not an idea whose time has come." The idea for Own the Podium came just in time.

Many of us are reflecting on the Vancouver Olympics as a seminal event in Canadian history. We've changed our view of ourselves as a polite, engaging people, with a dash of owning a monopoly on virtue. The extraordinary performance of our athletes and the spontaneous passion with which Canadians greeted them has dashed that view of ourselves - today, tomorrow and forever, I believe.

Why? Because being humble and virtuous, while expressing a passion for excellence and national pride, are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Own the Podium is an audacious expression of the belief that if we help our best athletes reach the starting line as well prepared as their rivals, they can win. The program wasn't based on a whim and it wasn't founded on a dream. It was born in the heart and soul of the late Mark Lowry, former executive director of sport for the Canadian Olympic Committee. In 2003, when Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, he recognized we had a unique opportunity to give our athletes the tools to win. He and many others saw that these Games would fail if the home team didn't perform well on the field of play.

Research was conducted and it didn't take long for the collective leadership of high-performance sport in Canada to conclude that we could stand first among all countries in the total medal count at Vancouver.

But this could happen only if we raised the money for the tools to move from the middle of the pack, where we had been performing without fail in previous Summer and Winter Games.

When we first told Canadians about our goal, many eyebrows were raised. How un-Canadian. We don't beat our chests and talk about our bold ambitions - that's what Americans do. What if we were to fail? Look how embarrassed we would be.

Yet as we progressed, many funders and supporters from both the corporate and government sectors joined us. It didn't take long for results. Third in medals in Torino with 24 (after tying for fourth with 17 at Salt Lake City). Then 14th in Beijing with 18 medals (after 19th with 12 in Athens). In 2008-2009, Canada placed first overall in winter sports world championships.

Our athletes embraced Own the Podium. Soon, there was a confidence and an unaccustomed swagger never before seen across the broad athletic community. Then, Canadians began to set aside their historic reticence and started to beat their chests.

It wasn't always sweetness and light. There was real debate about the worth and appropriateness of something so utterly foreign. But that debate began to turn into a cheer, then a rousing, thunderous roar as the Olympic torch began its magnificent journey across Canada, like a zipper drawing together the fabric of our nation. We had found a new way to share our pride in who we are and in the values that unite us. Those values were no longer based in just reticence and apology - they included a large measure of patriotism and confidence.

Then came the Games. In the opening week, many doubted the wisdom of having proclaimed our goals so openly and audaciously. I know how many questioned the program's name itself; I was button-holed virtually everywhere I went. The debate grew. It became part of the Games themselves. Other countries and their news media were curious, and some mocked that we would step out the comfort of our quiet historic existence.

I believe the debate changed us. It forced Canadians to reflect on our identity with an intensity we've never seen before. Indeed, the conversation quickly devolved to the area of "rights." Do we have the right to think we can own the podium? Do we have the right to think we can be both bold and polite? Do we have the right to fail in public the same way we hope to succeed? The debate itself may eventually be more transformative than the program's performance achievements. In any dialectic, the truth is always somewhere between two polar opposites. In our search for that truth, we'll no doubt learn more about what makes us special.

By Day 13, when Canadian athletes won four medals, we had realized that the only people in a position to grant those rights or take them away were ourselves. As the team moved forward and rode a wave of success that brought the highest gold-medal count in the 86-year history of the Olympic Winter Games, the bandwagon started to become pretty full. In just three days, the phrase "Own the Podium" changed meanings entirely. It became a metaphor for the expression of our belief that the pursuit of excellence and its public expression in no way detracts from our time-honoured qualities of handling great accomplishment with humility and grace.

As that bandwagon moves across Canada, we'll have to hitch a few more trailers to it. The more the merrier, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, I believe our journey to the podium has only just begun.

As Goethe once said, and as Canadians have now learned: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

Chris Rudge is outgoing CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

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