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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

A Sikh man wearing a turban and a Canadian hockey sweater said it best. We were talking about the Russia-Canada men's hockey game at a postgame party in Richmond, B.C., and he said, "I knew we had the players. What I didn't know was that we had the team."

We had the team. Not just in hockey, curling or speed skating. The team he was talking about was Canada. The country itself felt like a team. For a couple of weeks, we lived the same exhilaration, disappointment, elation and amazement. Total strangers stopped each other in the streets of Vancouver to share their emotions. The biggest was surprise; when it began, we were concerned that the whole world was watching us - our city, our games, our athletes - and by the end, we knew we had surprised everyone, especially ourselves.

We saw something else that surprised us: our medal winners' fierce will to win. We shouldn't have been surprised, but we were. For months, we laboured through a national discussion about Own the Podium - about whether wanting to win was really Canadian. We questioned the place of competitiveness in our national character. I hope that at these Winter Olympic Games, we decided once and for all that we are a people who will do what it takes to win.

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Whether we quite realize it or not, deciding to get competitive is also about wanting a more ambitious place for Canada in the world. The Olympics brought the reality of global competition home to Canadians. In a globalized world, competition never ends and the best competitors come from places you don't expect. Who knew, before these Olympics, just how good the Koreans were on the ice? Who knew that Switzerland could run so closely with us in hockey, the game we call our own?

In global competition, the difference between winning and losing can be agonizingly small. As our brave skeleton racer Melissa Hollingsworth acknowledged, the distance between her winning a medal and placing fifth was no more than a foot or so. What our athletes have realized our exporters, scientists and artists also understand. The distance between winners and losers in our chosen fields may be small, but it is decisive. Winning contracts, markets and audiences overseas will take the same single-minded dedication that inspired us in our athletes.

The Games taught us that we need to focus on what we do best and then be unsparingly disciplined about continuing to be the best. Investing in our best people is not elitist - it encourages the rest of us to improve what we do. A national sports program has to build participation in every rink and on every ski hill in the country, but it can only succeed if the children in those arenas and on those ski hills dream of being gold medalists one day. In short, the Olympics taught us to invest in excellence and invest for the long term. That way, all of our children will do better.

The Games leave Canada a much more confident and competitive country. We showed we can be really competitive, sure, but in a Canadian way. Our athletes displayed grace in victory, showing that we can win without losing the qualities that foreigners like about us: our courtesy, our civility and our capacity to share success with others.

Most of all, the Games revealed the deep longing of all Canadians for more moments like this, when we feel we are one great people, from coast to coast to coast, one team undivided, at one with our dreams and with each other. When we feel like this, we truly own the podium.

Michael Ignatieff is Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

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