Sorry, but for once we Canadians are sorry for nothing.
No apologies here, people. Move along.
This cold and sprawling country, which served as the perfect host at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary by letting other countries’ flags rise at the end of every single event, came out of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games with a record haul of 14 gold medals.
No longer the generous apologist, but the first host country since Norway back in 1952 to lead the world in total victories.
Those 14 golds in Vancouver were also more than any country has achieved to date in what some see as the minor Games, and what some have even suggested be dropped from the Olympic rings.
To that, Canada says drop dead.
It is no accident that the Canadian Olympic Committee’s 2014 motto (and hashtag) is “We are winter/Nous sommes l’hiver.” And perhaps it is merely coincidence that this winter, throughout much of the country, has already been a winter’s winter.
“Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays,” Gilles Vigneault so accurately sang, “c’est l’hiver.”
“Winter,” author Margaret Atwood suggested, “time to eat fat – and watch hockey.”
Atwood also called February the “month of despair,” and, admittedly, there are times when the cabin feverish would agree. But not this February. Canadians will spend this February, in person, on television and in their imaginations, at a palm-graced tourist town on the shores of the Black Sea.
And they will be recognizable not for their obsessive apologizing but by their swagger – a different sort of Canadian the world only gets to see during the weeks in which the Winter Olympic Games are played.
Make no mistake: Canada has different faces at the Olympics, depending on whether the Games are held in summer or winter. There has been success, sometimes great success, in Summer Games. But those results pale in comparison with the winter victories. As well, the attention of the country is far more focused on the Winter Games than the Summer Games.
“There is a definite difference,” says Hayley Wickenheiser, the opening ceremonies flag bearer who has competed in both the Summer and Winter Games (softball in Sydney, hockey in Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver and now Sochi). “I think you feel more like a ‘visitor’ at the Summer Games, just lucky to be there.”
Wickenheiser thinks it’s a different “mindset” at work. “We have a definite confidence and expectation of excellence in the Winter Games. When I played softball in the Summer Games, I felt people never expected results like we do in hockey. But I’d much rather have those expectations of gold than no one paying attention.”
Steve Podborski, Canada’s chef de mission in Sochi, agrees that there is a profound difference between Canada at the Winter Games and Canada at the much larger Summer Games.
“Our hashtag says: ‘We are winter,’” says the former World Cup downhill skiing champion. “In many ways Canada is winter.”
Podborski cautions, however, that the shift in confidence has largely happened in recent years, particularly during the Own the Podium movement over the past decade.
“When you have not only the nerve but the ability to say ‘We want to try to win the medal count’ – knowing that maybe we can’t, but let’s just take a shot at it – that’s a remarkable change,” says Podborski. “In 1980, when I raced in the [Lake Placid] Games, we won two medals and I won bronze. Now, we’re winning 26 in Vancouver and I think we’ll win more in Sochi. That’s a remarkable improvement. So we deserve to have some swagger.”
It is a confidence that has grown every four years since the hockey portion of the Nagano Games opened up to NHL players and women in 1998. Canadians became louder, more brazen in the stands – remember the woman wearing the hockey helmet and two strategically placed Canadian flags cheering on the hockey teams at Big Hat Arena? Canadian team-wear became wildly popular, from the poor-boy caps in Nagano to the red mittens of Vancouver.
Canada, at the Winter Games, was not the shy and polite Canada of international reputation, but a country where a curler would drop his pants to show the Olympic symbol tattooed on his butt, where the star of the women’s gold medal-winning hockey team would come out onto the ice long after the arena had emptied with a beer in one hand and a cigar in another – only to have some senseless reporter try to make a scandal out of the fact that she was not of legal drinking age.
The women’s hockey gold was but one of 26 medals won in Vancouver (14 gold, seven silver, five bronze), which placed Canada third over all in total medals, behind the United States (37 medals, nine gold) and Germany (30 medals, 10 gold). In the gold-medal count, however, Canada was well ahead of any other country.
The internationally based Infostrada sports service has predicted that Canada will leave Sochi with 31 medals, again standing third over all behind the U.S. and Norway. Infostrada sees Canada picking up 11 gold medals, with victories coming in men’s curling, women’s bobsleigh, women’s 1,000-metre speed skating, men’s figure skating, men’s moguls, women’s ski halfpipe, women’s snowboard cross, men’s and women’s snowboard slopestyle, men’s 1,000-m short-track speed skating and men’s 5,000-m short-track relay.
Intriguingly, the sports service predicts silver for women’s hockey – and no medal at all for captain Sidney Crosby and his Team Canada.
Still, the predictions are, if it can be said, cold comfort for those Canadians who now expect, and demand, a good national showing in the snow-and-ice games.
“We have great athletes winter and summer,” says France St-Louis, the assistant chef de mission who won a silver medal in women’s hockey in Nagano 16 years ago. “But I guess winter is our swagger time. We are aiming for the top spot in the total.”
Podborski says the Canadian Olympic Committee is not concerned about weighty expectations crushing certain athletes or teams. The gold-medal-or-nothing attitude is not open to discussion, as far as he is concerned.
“You don’t have to talk to athletes about that,” he says. “They know what it takes to be winning, and they know what it takes to come second and third. I won a bronze medal and I couldn’t be happier.
“I was a ‘winner.’”