Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pwned by the Podium

The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries

-International Olympic Committee

I don't like it one bit, it makes me feel somehow, I dunno ... unclean. Just as the Macbeths needed more than water to remove the blood from their hands, Monday's shower couldn't remove the stink from my hangover. The blood was symbolic of the stain left on the conscience of those royal usurpers by unchecked ambition while the stench of nationalism hangs in the air thanks to an all-out pursuit of medals and glory. I admit it, I'm proud that Canada won the most gold medals at this year's Winter Olympics; so why does it make me want to puke? Easy, as most foreign journalists have observed over the past couple of weeks it's just not Canadian, this kind of jingoistic flag-waving belongs to our neighbours to the south.

"Own the Podium". The program sponsored by the Canadian federal government at a cost of C$117 million is what got under the skin of most people. Seems that us canucks were fed up with coming in fourth place and seeing that as host nation, this would be Canada's chance to shine in the world's spotlight, funding was directed towards those events where we deemed our chances of winning to be greatest. Based on the results from the two previous times Canada hosted the Olympics, perhaps you can't really blame the Canadian Olympic organizers for wanting to improve on their past performance. You see, Canada failed to win a single gold in either Montreal in 1976 or Calgary in 1988, the only host nation in history who can claim such a dubious record. OK, Montreal was the summer Olympics, but Calgary? We couldn't even muster a gold in the winter games!

So, this time it would be different. Thanks to a $66 million infusion from the country's taxpayers, along with $51 million in sponsorship funds, the program offered Canadians who took home gold $20,000 apiece in a stated goal to take the overall medals title. While we may not have reached it, you can't argue with the result that was achieved as Canadians took home the most golds, 14. But hold on, it seems there is no agreed upon way of measuring who 'owned' the podium. Europeans generally tend to rank the countries by total golds won, while ironically North Americans usually rank by total medals. Both methods have their inherent weaknesses. Is a bronze really as valuable as a gold? Conversely, if a team wins only one gold while another country garners, say nine, but all of them silver and bronze, can you say the gold winners had a better Olympics? Such was the case in Turin in 2006 as the Japanese with a solitary medal, golden, were ranked ahead of the Fins with six silvers and three bronzes according to some tables.

But here's the rub: should it even matter? After all, the trappings of podiums and flag-raisings were not even part of the rebirth of the Olympics in the modern era. 1956 and Soviet domination brought it about as rivaling ideologies jockeyed for superiority any way they could. Those Italian Winter Games saw the Soviets come out ahead with seven gold and a total of 16 medals, but it wasn't until the Melbourne Summer Games that the world noticed politics taking over the event. The Hungarian Uprising and the Suez War combined to see multiple nations pull out of the games: Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden boycotted due to the Soviet presence while Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon did likewise in response to the Israeli invasion of Egypt. The age of political boycotts was initiated, up to then no one had made such a political statement, not even of the Nazi games of 1936. Of course the fall of the Berlin Wall has brought with it the end of the age of politics, ushering in the age of economics which coincidentally hasn't seen a single boycott in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Sadly, 'Own the Podium' didn't begin and end with solely helping Canadians; it also hindered everyone else as non-Canadian athletes found their access to practice sites was strictly limited. It started last winter when speedskaters from several countries were denied access to the Richmond Olympic Oval. The benefits of familiarity vary by sport. It may be irrelevant for some sports, after all, an oval is an oval, but it is particularly important on one-of-a-kind new sites like the alpine skiing runs or the track for luge, bobsled and skeleton. At the Whistler downhill course, unfamiliar to most of the world’s best skiers, several medal contenders were left watching over a fence as the Canadian team trained. Meanwhile a gentlemen's agreement between the luge teams of the United States and Canada was ignored, cutting practice runs. Canadian athletes had hundreds of trips down what is widely considered the world’s most treacherous course while foreign athletes had a few dozen. Some have gone so far as to say that lack of access to the luge run was a factor in the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.

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But really, who won? Just as in Beijing, where the Chinese led in golds while the US led in total medals, the US repeated the overall medal victory while again losing in gold, this time to Canada in Vancouver. So depending on your view, optimists may see it as two winners, while pessimists may see none. It's all academic anyway as even winning 'only' nine golds in Vancouver, the Norwegians continued there medal per capita dominance at the Winter Olympics. In fact the nation of 4.7 million has won more medals than any other country at the Quadrennial Cold Weather Athletic Competition (thanks Stephen Colbert). Norway has 290 total medals to the USA's measly 237, with Canada lagging well back in 7th with 127. Well, at least the success of "Own the Podium" allowed the canucks to move past the Swedes who are now back in 8th and in fact if measured by gold, Canada is now tied with Finland for 6th with 42.

Yes, the maple leaf was in your face at these games, but that's the idea for the home team isn't it? To show the rest of the world you kick ass, like they did in Sydney and more recently at the Beijing coming out party for the aspiring G2 superpower. Every country that is awarded the Olympics immediately prioritizes the winning of more medals than ever to inflate its national ego and help justify the enormous expenditure and effort. China was guilty two years ago of favouring the home team and don't forget their Project 119, named for the number of additional gold medals it might contend for by focusing on medal intensive sports. Yes, I guess what's ok in China is ok in Canada. And don't forget Salt Lake City in 2002 which saw a nation desperate to prove to the world that it was still the world's superpower and therefore needn't fear anyone. What's a few maple leafs jerseys when the stars and stripes were just as ubiquitous eight years ago? Oh yeah, that was the fringe benefit to these Olympics for the host nation's government, it distracted the people's attention from that little political fiasco that saw democracy shut down for over three months in the true north strong and free. Canada's national fascist rag admitted as much and even claimed the strategy a success. Yeah, that's right, it's ok to torture, or it least be complicit to torture, like the Americans too.

So, unfortunately for Canada, it seems it's alright that they have a leader determined to turn their once distinct nation into a watered-down version of their southern neighbour so long as he's a hockey fan. Somehow Harper has missed who's winning the global race these days, but he better wake up quick as the thin-skinned response of the Canadian media to comparisons between 1936 Berlin and 2010 Vancouver won't be in evidence at the site of the next winter Olympics, Socchi, Russia in 2014. I'm sure they'll choose more dramatic nationalistic maneuvers, anyone remember the Arctic? Medvedev has already demanded officials responsible for Russia's abysmal medal performance step down so we know that one of the stories of 2014 will again be the home nation's drive to top the podium. As China has raced to lock up resources around the world to feed their growing economy, Canada (and the US, Denmark and Norway) better watch the Russians close. After all, they did take advantage of the distraction that the opening ceremonies in Beijing afforded them in 2008 as the Georgian conflict kicked off. Guess we'll have to wait and see what they have in store for the world.

And then there's hockey. Without the gold medal victory Sunday night against the American squad, the Canadian Olympics would've been deemed a bust by most no matter the other results. Again, I must admit that my nationalism gene was activated as I walked into my local bar here in Poznan and in my Polish-English garble inquired whether the game would be on TV there. After a moment of confusion the owner/bartender broke into a smile and said "Oh, your friends!" And so it was, as my Canadian brethren took the ice, I was settled in comfortably on a bar stool, beer in hand enjoying 'The Game' on the other side of the world. The win wrapped up Canada's 14th gold from 17 days of competition, moving them past the Norwegian team's 2002 performance for most ever. The glow of victory remained Monday as everyone seemed to have seen the game as well and made sure to tell me what a good game we played, on the street or in school. But when the hangover finally cleared on Tuesday, this dirty feeling crept back, nagging me, demanding to know: what comes next for Canada?

The first week of the Vancouver Olympics threatened to turn the games into the worst ever, but by the end of day 17, the city and Canadians had managed to turn this perception on its head. The city seems to have come out a big winner, but I fear it'll turn into a loss for the country. Politically rudderless, a wasteland with no credible opposition and a megalomaniacal leader intent on burning the Reichstag; economically dependent on her sickly neighbour to the south and the biggest environmental disaster in the world (which coincidentally just welcomed billions in investment from, you guessed it, China); and morally corrupt, where the Olympics sponsors can snow the public with a green campaign while being the dirtiest corporations on the planet (and no, I won't go into the irony of trucking in snow to a Winter Olympic site bereft of snow thanks to trucking). My hangover has passed, the world seems less foggy. Now that the Olympics are over, Canada gets to have a functioning government once again. I think I can deal with the new Canadian attitude so long as the energy from Own the Podium gets turned into Own Your Government.