Canada remains happily mediocre

Bruce Dowbiggin, Calgary Herald
Published: Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Was I the only one wondering why Donovan Bailey, perhaps the greatest Summer Olympian ever in this country, was mentoring Jamaican athletes in Beijing? Why was he hugging Usain Bolt, not Canadians Gary Reed or Priscilla Lopes-Schliep? Oh, right . . . he was frozen out by Canadian officials despite a medal dry spell going back to 1996 for Canadian track.

Am I the only one who wonders why this is going on in a country that supposedly needs all the help it can get?

Our athletes won 18 medals. A lot better than the 12 in Athens. Better than the 14 in Sydney. A lot more than anyone believed in the futile first week in Beijing. The nation finished in the top 14 nations, slightly ahead of its own predictions. Tied with Spain! And we had another nine near-misses for fourth (can we get the IOC to cast a copper medal?)

Eighty per cent of Canadians think the team did a swell job. So let's celebrate as Canada exceeds expectations at the Summer Olympics.

Or not. There was something hollow in much of Canada's self-satisfied Olympic machinery in Beijing. Call it the triumph of low expectations. Like the faux-Beatles commercials for Little Mosque On The Prairie flogged by CBC during the Games, (turns out that virtually none of Little Mosque's actors are even Islamic), there was a smug satisfaction with our cleverness in grabbing a whole three gold medals in China.

Hey, look at us, overcoming the odds. Underdogs defying gravity.

As one reader has pointed out, much of that medal production came in low-hanging fruit, sports such as trampoline, rowing, diving and wrestling, with smaller participant bases. In the major team sports that enjoy worldwide attention, there had not been a Canadian squad that has won a medal in a summer Games since 1936. Soccer. Basketball. Field hockey. Baseball. Volleyball. Kaput.

Canada has (for the past three Olympics) virtually disappeared in the swimming pool. The track team that kicked butt in Athens in 1996 is now a hope here and a prospect there. After Kyle Shewfelt's 2004 revelation in gymnastics, Canada once more disappeared in the sport in Beijing. Boxing? Zilch. Cycling: Nada.

This is not to knock the athletes who dedicate themselves with their hearts and soul. They try, they sacrifice. But there are still too many in this country consoled by a nanny culture that celebrates 17th place with a trophy. CBC and other Canadian media compliantly promote the plucky Canuck scenario, but it obscures the reality of what can truly be achieved in Canada.

Let's reflect on this wonderful country a moment. Blessed with great prosperity, immense talent and guaranteed health care for all, we still can't win more than three gold medals in each of the past three Olympics? Spain's a cool place to visit, but with our resources we should school them (and much of the world) on a quadrennial basis.

Some will say that, unlike the Australias and Spains, we must split our focus between Summer and Winter games, diminishing our resources. Vancouver 2010 is the big dog that must eat first. That our corporate community is too branch-plant to mount the funding effort needed to push Canada to the top. Government has other priorities for the money.

All good excuses. Excuses that many in the sports community and media readily grab to explain failure. Reliable, clutch performers such as Alex Despatie or Karen Cockburn are the exception, not the rule in Canada's Olympic firmament. There are legions who believe that, when the going gets tough, it's time to go home.

There is reportedly a new spirit in our sports culture -- Own The Podium -- that seems to be working on the Winter Games side. Our hockey teams now possess a newfound mental toughness. The ski team is headed in the right direction, etc. Vancouver could be the showcase for mental toughness that Summer Games are not.

Now, former swim hero Alex Baumann has been repatriated from Australia to spread this gospel to Canada's summer athletes. Maybe we'll see the rewards of that by London in 2012. But why not also bring Bailey and Bruny Surin back as well to help the track team? There are still too many stories out there about bureaucrats who refuse to rethink the paradigm of carded athletes and mediocre coaches in their sports.

In women's field hockey, for instance, a group of parents and supporters came forth with four proposals to make sure the team gets to the Games in 2012 after failing to reach Beijing. They were turned down each time by the governing body. This is not an aberration in Canadian sport.

Look, if we want to be the world's 14th-place team, that's fine by me. But let's not pretend that riding in the fumes of other nations is the natural state of our potential, either. We can do better. We just choose not to and then create a myth of inferiority to excuse the results. (We do this is in business, too.) Canada has the best -- we just need to tell them it's OK to be so.


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