Why didn't we just call it 'On the Podium'?

Instead, we went with a swaggering, bragging, over-reaching slogan

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If only they'd called it On the Podium, rather than Own the Podium.

The Canadian Olympic Committee would still have been making a statement about our medal ambitions, without raising expectations to unattainable levels, and avoiding inevitable ridicule.

U.S. short-track skater Apollo Ohno said he didn't mind if the Canadians owned the podium, so long as we let the Americans borrow it for the month of February. A commentator on NBC suggested that far from owning the podium, the Canadians weren't even sub-letting it.

In a remarkable role reversal, it's the Canadians who've been guilty of trash talk at these Olympics, while the Americans have flown under the radar. They've even put a lid on their annoying chants of "USA, USA!" The results speak for themselves: As of yesterday, the Americans had won 26 medals, including seven gold and eight in men's and women's alpine skiing, while the Canadians had won 11 medals, including six gold and, uh, none in skiing. Zero. Zilch. Lots of fourths, though, and even more top 10s. A fourth in the cross-country ski relay, and three in the top 10 in the 30K, that's a place Canada has never been before, so kudos to our Nordic skiers.

What's wrong with 11 medals - 12 if you count the silver already clinched by the women's hockey team? What's wrong with six gold medals, including the inspirational first one won by Alex Bilodeau in men's freestyle skiing, with his handicapped brother cheering him on at the bottom of the hill?

Stated another way, a country that has never before won a gold medal at an Olympics it was hosting has already won six in Vancouver. What's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing.

Except that Own the Podium announced its objective of Canada finishing first in the medal standings, and even put out a minimum number of medals - 30 - it expected our athletes to win. Own the Podium CEO Roger Jackson, himself a gold medalist at the Summer Games in 1964, said so on opening day, right on the front page of the New York Times. Just the sort of clipping other teams use for motivation.

Should we be doing better? Sure. We could have done without Chris Del Bosco hot-dogging a jump at the bottom of the hill in ski cross, when he had a bronze medal in his pocket. Our men's hockey team is, predictably, playing like an all-star team rather than a real one.

But did our athletes need the extra pressure inherent in Own the Podium, which isn't a name for an elite program so much as a statement with attitude, one that said we were inviting the world to our country to kick their butt? How's that for swagger? Not to mention bad karma, to say nothing of the pressure it put on funded athletes to deliver podium performances.

Perhaps this accounts for a distraught Melissa Hollingsworth calling a news conference to apologize to the country for finishing fifth in skeleton when silver had been within her grasp. This just in: She hurtled down an ice track at 140 km/h, and missed a turn by a millimetre or two. She has nothing to apologize for. Christine Nesbitt got a downward arrow from the Globe and Mail after fading to sixth place in the women's 1,500 metre long-track speed skating where she was favoured to win. And this, after she won gold in the 1,000. By the way, Kristina Groves won silver. Denny Morrison, after finishing ninth in men's 1,500 actually lashed out at Own the Podium for telling him he could no longer train at the Calgary oval with U.S. rival Shani Davis.

So that by the start of the second week of the Games, Canadian Olympic Committee and OTP officials were predictably in damage control created by their own inflated expectations. In Monday's media, the COC was saying Canada would still have our best medal performance ever, surpassing the 24 won at Turin four years ago.

By yesterday, COC president Chris Rudge was conceding Canada would do well to finish third in the medal standings. He also thought Own the Podium should consider a name change. "There are many people who would say there was a little too much braggadocio in that," he said. "Should we change the name now? Maybe that's one of the things we should consider."

Anyone who has written political talking points could have told them that. The line should have been: "We're proud to host the world. If we win our first gold medal, that will be historic, and we'll take whatever comes after that. It's the Olympics, the whole world wants to be on the podium, and so do we."

On it, not owning it.

Roger Jackson might be a doctor, but he's clearly not a spin doctor.

 
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