Skip to main content

Supporters of Vanessa James and Eric Radford wave their national flag ahead of the pairs short program during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics Feb. 18, in Beijing.David J. Phillip/The Associated Press

What if they held an Olympics and no one cared?

Like a case study in an MBA program, Beijing 2022 set out to answer that question.

Some preliminary Canadian observations:

  • Two Olympics in six months is one Olympics too many.
  • An Olympics held during what, by this country’s dreary standard, qualifies as a national emergency will capture neither hearts nor minds.
  • An Olympics where one participant is preparing to invade another is not an inducement to put your arms around the world and hold it tightly.
  • Four golds is not enough golds. Not for the country that invented Winter (N. American Ed.).

I’m sure someone somewhere had a great Olympics. Norway, as usual. China, in general. Eileen Gu, in particular.

If I’d won two gold medals, was on every billboard in a country I never intended to live in and could now jet back to Northern California to roll around in my millions, I’d call it a win, too.

Everyone else here was punching a clock. As a result, usually reliable Olympic audiences were tuned out before anyone could tune in.

Based on the early returns, the TV numbers went off a cliff. That’s only since the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year – another COVID Games played in an unhelpful time zone. If you want to go back to Pyeongchang 2018, the Canadian viewership decline was closing in on 50 per cent.

As it turns out, constantly reminding people that the neighbour holding the global birthday party sends his kids to prison camp is not good advertising.

“I’d like to think that [these Games] went over much the same that Tokyo did,” Canadian Olympic Committee chief executive officer David Shoemaker said Sunday. “That there was a nation that felt a collective need to be inspired by our athletes and their incredible performances, and they were.”

That’s one perspective.

I suspect American gadfly Bill Maher got closer to the truth: “If you’ve been like me over the last few weeks, glued to your TV watching the Olympics, that makes exactly two of us.”

Team Canada did its part. Unfortunately, getting this country whipped up about the Games isn’t the sweet breeze it used to be.

Canada won 26 medals.

Does that make you feel especially Canadian? Do you feel the urge to buy a branded Molson beer fridge? Does hearing we won more medals than America make you patriotically tumescent?

I’m going to guess not.

Owning the podium is like owning a new car. For the first while, just seeing it in the driveway gives you joy. But you get used to it in a hurry. Then some dummy scrapes a shopping cart up against it in an IKEA parking lot and it’s just a car.

Cracking 20 medals and 10 golds was a cause for national celebration in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. It was a source of pride in Sochi 2014. It was proof of our place in the world in Pyeongchang.

But in Beijing, gold became bronze and the thrill was gone.

Ten years ago, it was all, “Canada! No one does it better!”

Now, it’s “Canada. We forgot to practise or something?”

Bronze medallist Canada's Brad Gushue puts on the medal for teammate Marc Kennedy during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games men's curling competition victory ceremony on Feb. 19.LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

Some of this will be solved by natural forces. The pandemic will end, Olympic scarcity will be re-established and Paris, host of the 2024 Summer Games, is the easiest civic sell on planet Earth.

In 2½ years, people will either have become tired of complaining as though it’s their life’s purpose, or the coming war will be nearing its end game. Either way, it’ll be a good time for a party.

In the interim, Canada’s Olympic infrastructure might want to adjust its focus.

The goal shouldn’t be winning more stuff. More isn’t going to turn apathy into engagement. We’ve tried more. It stopped working.

The goal should be something more basic (and more difficult) – convincing Canadians that the Olympic project is still worthwhile on its own merits. That we should spend oodles of public money glorifying an organization whose most impressive win these past three weeks was over a 15-year-old girl. They really worked that figure-skating kid over. What a collection of heroes.

You want people to buy the Olympics? Then sell it to them. Why should they care?

It shouldn’t be that hard. The Olympics is important. There is value in bringing the world together in friendly competition. We ought to feel pride in our athletes

But in the process of turning Canada into an Olympic powerhouse, our sports aristocracy lost sight of what bound the team to the country in the first place – its averageness. They were a lot like the rest of us, only fitter. Humble. Funny. Happy to be there. They didn’t win much, but they looked as though they were enjoying themselves while they lost.

Canada's Charles Hamelin, Pascal Dion, Steven Dubois and Jordan Pierre-Gilles celebrate after winning gold.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/Reuters

I remain convinced that Canadians do not take much joy in beating other people. Our nature is conciliatory. We’d rather be helpful than right.

It’s great when one of us does well but not too well. Few countries are more suspicious of ambition. It makes for bad art, dull politics and good lives. We’ve got room in this country for one iconoclast – Margaret Atwood. The rest of them have to move to Los Angeles.

The Canadian Olympic team doesn’t have to get suddenly bad to reconnect with the outer boroughs. But it needs to stop talking so much about being great.

A little less self-congratulation when it comes to its partnership with the International Olympic Committee might be a good start. Talk more about how the Canadian Olympic setup can humanize and decapitalize the movement, and less about high-performance centres and the international butt-kickings to come. A bit less “athlete focused” and more “Canadians focused.” They’re the ones who pay the bills. How are they included in this process? And I’m not talking about a bunch of them standing in the cheering section behind some gold medalist sanctifying her name.

Gold medallist Irene Schouten of the Netherlands and silver medallist Ivanie Blondin of Canada react.SUSANA VERA/Reuters

None of this need be done, of course. The Olympics has its own gravity. That will pull Canada through for years to come.

But it couldn’t hurt for the people in charge to ask themselves if the goal is high-fiving a few beneficiaries, or recapturing the attention of their 38 million benefactors.

Our Olympic team has a daily newsletter that lands in your inbox every morning during the Games. Sign up today to join us in keeping up with medals, events and other news.