Canada gets pwned on the podium

The Canadian Olympic Committee headed into the 2010 Vancouver games with high hopes. After utter disappointment in the medal standings at the 1976 Montreal summer games and the 1988 Calgary winter games, the COC took the bull by the horns after the announcement of Vancouver as host — boldly claiming that Canada would own the podium in 2010.

Turns out “owning” the podium means getting half as many medals as the Americans.

After pledging five years ago that Canada would win more medals at the 2010 games than any other country, thereby “owning” the medal podium, at press time Canada has a scant 15 medals. This result would be merely embarrassing if not for two things — the United States has more than twice as many medals as Canada despite making no podium ownership claim, and the “Own the Podium” initiative cost roughly $110 million. If Canada doubles its medal totals by the end of the games, which doesn’t seem terribly likely, that’s a price tag of about $4 million per medal. A first-place finish in the medal standings, based on the last few games, would take roughly 30 medals.

That’s not even the biggest reason why “Own the Podium” was a monumentally bad idea.

Historically, Canada has not been an Olympic powerhouse. Discounting the Soviet boycott of the 1984 summer games, Canada’s peak medal performance in any Olympics prior to the 1990s was 11 medals at the 1976 summer games — corresponding with an uptick in amateur sports funding prior to the Montreal-hosted games. Oddly enough, Canada’s place as a contender in many winter sports didn’t get cemented until the 1994 Albertville games, as the country’s peak performance prior to that was a whopping seven medals. The amateur sports onslaught came, in part, because of continuous funding increases due to the success of the 1988 Calgary Olympics — the effects of which are still being felt today.

Athletes competing at the Olympics are under tremendous pressure — often working day and night towards their goals while doing whatever they can to supplement their often meagre government sports funding. Adding on the pressure of performing before their home country is bad enough, but doing so while your Olympic committee is pledging to dominate the Olympics is ridiculous. Host countries kind of suck at the Olympics, perhaps for that very reason — it’s too much pressure on already-stressed athletes. Only a handful of nations have “owned” their home podiums, and those were countries like Norway, China and the United States who were already strong Olympic performers.

If the Canadian Olympic Committee is serious about owning the podium in the future, throwing money at the problem once won’t solve it. The great Olympic leap forward following the 1988 Calgary games occurred because the games began a continual level of commitment towards Canadian amateur sports. The COC has to commit itself to the creation and maintenance of a sophisticated funding structure for amateur sports if they want to be seen as a world leader at the Olympics. If the Americans can do it, why can’t we?

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