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Canada Owns The Podium, Sort Of

March 2, 2010
Closing Ceremonies, 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver

The closing ceremonies. CC licensed photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

It’s hard to believe that, until a couple of weeks ago, Canada had never won an Olympic gold medal on home soil. By the time the giant inflated beavers were on the march, we had made off with 14 of the things, more than any other nation in Winter Olympic history. I suppose it was especially satisfying to the Canadian psyche that both our hockey teams won gold, with the women celebrating in fine style afterwards. But none of this fully addresses the question that every patriotic Canadian ought to be mulling over: did we, in fact, Own the Podium?

After all, Owning the Podium was supposedly pretty important to us. We poured $110 million, over a period of five years, into training elite practitioners of mostly obscure winter sports. Our national demeanour underwent, according to the dominant narrative, a change of almost lycanthropic proportions. The mild-mannered, polite Canadian of our cultural mythology howled in a sudden fit of competitive bloodlust, determined to achieve victory at all costs. Ken Read, in the Globe and Mail, offered up a bit of insight into the mind of a true Own the Podium believer:

Own The Podium is and must be the rallying point. It gives us the sense of mission, direction, pride, focus, energy, passion and determination to be the best we can be. It has worked brilliantly, building an attitude, a belief that we can compete.

I’ve been snarkily critical of some of the coverage of the Vancouver Olympics that has appeared in the British press, but I don’t blame Simon Barnes of the Times for finding Own the Podium frankly distasteful. Under the brilliant headline “Well done, Canada, you Own the Odium”, he wrote:

The campaign has been strident, derisive and insulting. Normally, the world takes joy in the success of the home athletes. Freeman’s run in Sydney was as lovely a bit of sport as I’ve seen, and Guo Jingjing, the diver diva, was wonderful in Beijing. But the world has found it hard to enjoy Canada’s successes.

That phrase. Own it. It’s not a Canadianism. It’s an Americanism. It’s a reasonably modern bit of jargon and expresses a highly American mixture of positive thinking and borderline arrogance. By using this phrase, Canada was unambiguously taking on the big neighbour.

I’m not so sure that we were “taking on the big neighbour”, as opposed to simply taking on all comers, but I do think there was always a certain unpleasantness of tone about Own the Podium. Strident, derisive and insulting pretty much nails it. When you aspire to “own” something in that sense, you’re not aiming for victory but rather for a kind of bullying dominance. John Baird, for example, probably thinks he Owns Question Period. I think we should have called our programme Storm the Podium, which sounds suitably dramatic but emphasises the struggle rather than the outcome.

Whether you call it Owning or Storming, we planted a Canadian flag on the middle part of the podium by winning the most gold medals. For most of the world, that’s apparently the standard measure of Olympic success, but both we and the Americans have traditionally attached more importance to the total medal count. Ordered the North American way, the final medal standings were:

Country Gold Silver Bronze Total Pts (3-2-1) Pts (4-2-1)
USA 9 15 13 37 70 79
Germany 10 13 7 30 63 73
Canada 14 7 5 26 61 75
Norway 9 8 6 23 49 58
Austria 4 6 6 16 30 34

If you look at the last two columns, you may be able to see where I’m going with this. To me it seems obvious that neither gold medal count nor total medal count is really a good criterion for Owning the Podium. If you use the total medal count, you’re effectively treating bronze and silver medals as equal in value to gold ones, which is probably too blindly egalitarian even for modern Canada. But if you consider only golds, you’re treating bronze and silver medals as totally worthless, and, well, we know better than that now.

Clearly what’s needed is a weighting system that would assign progressively higher values to bronze, silver and gold medals. If you give gold a value of 3, silver 2, and bronze 1, you get the same order (for this particular part of the Vancouver 2010 medal table) as you would by counting total medals. But if you decide that gold is actually worth twice as much as silver, the resulting 4-2-1 point system at least puts Canada narrowly ahead of Germany and only narrowly behind the USA. Make it 5-2-1, and Canada (as I’ve worked out separately) wins by a point. Sometimes the best way to Own the Podium is to Own a Calculator.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2010 9:39 am

    Thank you!

  2. March 2, 2010 10:01 pm

    Hi there,

    Thank you for for using my photograph in this post!

    Please attribute the photograph to Duncan Rawlinson and link to me @ http://www.TheLastMinuteBlog.com

    Thank you.

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