Examining expectations

We have reached the inevitable moment of recrimination and regret — and redemption — as the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games head into the final six days.

We have reached the inevitable moment of recrimination and regret — and redemption — as the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games head into the final six days.

Did we waste millions of dollars on athletes who were destined to fail?

Did we somehow fail our athletes by not giving them the tools to succeed, either physically or psychologically?

Did we fail as a nation by placing too much emphasis on medals and not enough on the glory of competition at the highest level, and the value of sports, athleticism and activity for the rest of us?

Each of us must decide for ourselves. But before you join the National Shame camp, a few factors should be considered.

Certainly we are victims of hype, created threefold by:

• The corporate world that drives the Olympic movement. Advertising by necessity must focus on the positives, even if that means distorting reality. Beer ads that announce, after a rollicking travelogue of the country, that we were made for this, fail to recognize that no one is made for success in Olympic circumstances — it takes remarkable dedication and hard work, mental toughness and resourcefulness, and a large dollop of luck.

But happy talk sells products, so we are a nation of believers, until the hype unravels.

• The Own The Podium program, which invested heavily ($117 million over five years) in training, coaching and equipment, was intended to win Canadians as many as 34 medals. That’s 10 more than Canadians won in Turin four years ago, and it would be an Olympic record.

It was, and still is, an unrealistic goal and put too many athletes in a position to fail.

“What they don’t want to do is simply throw money at potential with no function for realization of that,” said Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which oversees the program. “You don’t want to waste money.”

But you also need perspective. Own The Podium is a long-term project and it requires commitment. Pulling the plug after these Olympics will mean we didn’t give the program a chance (the corporate and provincial investment in the program ends with these Games and the federal contribution would have to be doubled to make up the difference; no one knows if that will happen).

Own the Podium chief executive Roger Jackson said the investment will create a winning talent pool in eight to 10 years, and the program started in 2005. We have not reached the peak. He says we still lack depth in both athletes and coaches. The message is clear: stay the course.

• The media (the Advocate included) feeds on both shining success and crushing failure. Both sell, both attract viewers and readers, and both get a too-thorough treatment. So before the Games, we trumpeted the potential of our many athletes. As they compete, we focus on their results, and their reactions. Too often, in the first 10 days of these Games, that has meant focusing on disappointment.

But what if we considered these Games in a broader, less competitive way?

Examine the character of our athletes (Mellisa Hollingsworth’s heartfelt apology after finishing fifth in the skeleton, or Joannie Rochette skating despite the sudden death of her mother). What better examples would you want for your children?

What if we considered what the legacy of the Calgary Olympics of 1988 gave our country, and how far our athletes have advanced in the ensuing 22 years because they had world-class venues on which to train?

Surely that demonstrates that the Own The Podium concept works over time, and shows that the new facilities in Vancouver and Whistler will further enhance our development.

What if we were willing to be shocked and motivated by studies that point to increased obesity in all age groups, including children; a rise in type 2 diabetes; a decline in our overall fitness; and the spillover value of physical fitness into areas of mental acuity and psychological well-being?

Then, of course, our Olympic failure isn’t failure at all. It is just another stitch in the fabric of nation building. And we should never stop building a nation that we are proud of, and not just because of the number of times we step onto the podium at the Olympic Games.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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