You don’t get a sense of it when you’re actually at the Games.
At the venues, either in the stands or beneath them, talking to athletes and their coaches, there is generally either elation or heartbreak for Canada’s Olympians.
And the dividing line for the best of them is, usually: Did they make the podium or not?
You don’t hear much talk about gold or bust, as can be the case elsewhere.
It’s “we want to win a medal.” Or “we just want to get on the podium.”
Where I have seen the gold infatuation aplenty the past two weeks, however, is from fans at home, on Twitter and in the comments on our site. At times, it can be a bit ugly.
Some wanted a bigger medal haul in London. Many wanted more than the one gold medal.
To them, I have a few rejoinders:
a) Canada was projected to win anywhere from 17 to 22 medals by the experts coming in, and many felt the high end of that projection wasn’t realistically in reach. There was never going to be any true “owning” of the podium in London, and the Canadian Olympic Committee’s goal of a top 12 finish in overall medals was both ambitious and appropriate for a country this size and with this level of financial investment in its summer athletes. (Canada ultimately finished 13th.) Without a dramatically different grassroots and funding structure, we have to settle for attempting to “own” the podium in the winter and competing for it with Italy, Spain, etc., in the summer. There’s no great shame in that.
b) The 18 medals Canada did win is one of this country’s best ever medal hauls in a Summer Games. It matches what athletes won in Beijing, tying 1992 and 2008 for the second most podiums in a non-boycotted Games. Winning a medal in 6 per cent of events in London is a solid result in this country. (There were also a handful of fourth place finishes.)
c) Canada won only three gold medals in each of the previous four Summer Olympics and the high water mark in London was likely between three and five. The sample size when you’re dealing with the difference between gold, silver and bronze is also so small that there’s going to be some variation from Games to Games. Athletes will win gold by a second in one Games and lose it by a second in others. Obviously, they had a target of more gold; it just wasn’t that much higher than one.
d) The only country in recent years that has won significantly more Summer Games medals with a smaller population than Canada is Australia – a nation with almost no winter sports infrastructure and which has invested heavily in its athletes leading up to and since the Sydney Games in 2000. (And the Aussies’ medal count was down significantly from Beijing this time around.)
e) There’s way, way too much focus on medal counts anyway.
Now, this was the first Olympics that I have covered as a member of the media so it’s the first time I’ve been able to see up close what goes into making it to and performing at the Games.
That includes sitting down with Canada’s Olympians and their families before the Games, getting to know them as well as possible and learning their financial situations and motivations for doing what they do.
And all of the clichés you’ve heard about working four years for one shot at a medal isn’t an exaggeration; that’s just the reality of the situation.
They all sign up for that, too, and are willing to take on the long hours and pressure involved for the slim shot at potential (and often fleeting) glory.
They truly love their sports and, for many, simply making the Olympics is (and here’s another cliché for you) a dream come true.
But I think what many miss is that these are not pros. They’re not people particularly used to the spotlight, the media, the expectations and the crowd and they all deal with it differently.
Usain Bolt is the oddball here – not those who can’t cope in that environment.
Even if they fail to win gold, what Canada’s athletes don’t deserve is to be dumped on – especially those who weren’t heavy favourites to win their events.
Speaking of which, looking back on those projections, Canada had very few athletes in that category anyway.
In fact, in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, The Globe’s deputy sports editor, Dave Leeder, put together a master list of each day of the Games, with all of the potential Canadian medalists.
The number projected as possible gold winners was incredibly small – maybe five or six – with the likes of the two rowing eights boats and kayaker Adam Van Koeverden among those in the running.
None of those three were outright, slam-dunk favourites, either, as they were up against athletes and teams they had lost to again and again.
Even without the gold, these Olympics were not, in other words, some great disaster for Canada.
A real disaster would be losing a big chunk of their Beijing medal count, which has happened in places like Australia, Ukraine and Cuba.
Or not winning a medal at all, which countries like Austria are enduring.
Instead, Canada won a lot of expected medals and quite a few unexpected ones. There were highs and lows, disappointments and triumphs and all sorts of performances in between.
For me, many of those underdogs that won bronze or performed well above expectation (i.e. decathlete Damian Warner) will be what I remember from the Games.
I’d also like to see the argument that bronze isn’t worthwhile made in the face of what Mark Oldershaw, Christine Girard, the women’s soccer team or the men’s 4x100 relay team (prior to the disqualification, of course) accomplished.
All of them didn’t go to London with the goal of only gold. They went to win a medal – any medal – stand on a podium and be one of the best at their sport’s highest level.
Oldershaw became the first member of his famous family to win one in nine Olympic appearances. Nine.
Girard spent four years training in her garage after missing the podium by three kilograms in Beijing and became the first Canadian woman to ever medal in her sport.
The soccer team had only qualified for the Olympics for the second time ever and was ranked seventh in the world.
The relay team, well, we all saw what happened there. That was a phenomenal run save for the one major mistake. They were, incredibly, a small fraction of a second off of what the powerhouse teams of the late ‘90s ran, anchored by Donovan Bailey.
And I have never seen an athlete more devastated than Justyn Warner was that night when it was taken away.
It may have been bronze, but the reactions of these Canadian athletes when they won were some of the most dramatic moments I’ve had the chance to cover in this job.
They were fantastic accomplishments.
If you don’t know their stories and how much went into those medals and want to write them off as “just another bronze,” that’s a shame. People complain in e-mails to me and in comments on this site all the time about high ticket prices, lazy millionaire athletes and wealthy owners in the NHL, and that sports has become too much of a business and too little about the love of sport.
Yet here are a great group of Canadian athletes, most of whom compete for a pittance, and they’re accomplishing what they set out to do.
(Jared Connaughton’s misstep aside.)
In that respect, the London Games were great theatre, and frankly, a great representation of what Canada’s about.
What it shouldn’t be about is this bizarre Summer Olympics inferiority complex that seems to come up every four years, where a lack of golds compared to medal factories in the U.S. or China is regarded as a national embarrassment.
It’s just not.
There’s nothing wrong, after all, in rooting for bronze. Because for a lot of Canada’s athletes, it felt like gold anyway.
I’m okay with that. You should be, too.