Peter Goes to the Games

The Games of the 23rd Winter Olympiad have concluded. Canada set a record for most medals won, coming in 3rd, ahead of such nations as the United States. Some of you reading this will remember when Canada’s participation in the Olympics, whether Winter or Summer, would result in a mere handful of medals.

I’m going to share some of my Olympic thoughts and memories, and I’ll try to keep them in order. The first Olympic Games I really paid attention to were the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. This was probably because I was starting high school and wanted to compete in track and cross country. Some memories come to mind, the French initials for the Canadian Olympic Games Organization spelling a naughty word in Spanish, for example. How about Dick Fosbury literally turning the world of high jumping on its head, with his radical “Fosbury Flop”? An old schoolmate of mine, Frank Curtis, adopted the technique and shattered long standing high jump records at the local level. (Where have you gone, Frank? How did Life turn out for you?)

Tommie Smith and John Carlos won Gold and Bronze medals in the Men’s 200 metre sprint at the 1968 Summer Games. They took advantage of their moment in the spotlight to protest poverty and prejudice by brandishing the “Black Power Salute” during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem. The powerful photo taken of them during this moment resonated around an rapidly changing world.

Elaine Tanner, “Mighty Mouse” as she was known, competed in the 1968 Summer Games as well. She was highly favoured to win a Gold medal in her specialty, the 100 metre Backstroke. As she prepared to start the final, she suddenly felt the pressure of an entire country on her 17 year old shoulders. She finished second, by half a second. Although she had won the first medal for a Canadian woman in swimming, and her Silver medal broke a 40 year dry spell for our swim team, there was a tremendous sense of disappointment throughout the land. Even though she later won a second Silver and a Bronze at these games, as one headline put it, “Tanner loses Gold”. At one point she even considered suicide. Although she has put her life back together, this does represent the dark side of competition at that level.

Elaine “Mighty Mouse” Tanner

Fast forward to 1976 and the Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, QC. The mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, famously said “The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby” when announcing the Games’ budget. In the event, there was a 1 Billion dollar cost over run, which took the city 30 years to pay off. “Game Plan 76” was a program which was set up to improve our performance at the Olympics. Who can forget Greg jumping for Joy, winning one of the 5 Silver medals Canada won, the first time in history that the host country had not won at least one Gold? We won a total of 11 medals at these games.

Calgary 1988

We had our next opportunity to host the Olympics in 1988, when the Winter Games were held in Calgary. A new national support program, “Best Ever ’88” was brought to fruition. Canada won 2 Silver and 3 Bronze medals at those games.

In 2003. Canada was awarded the opportunity to host the Winter Olympics in 2010, as well as the 2010 Winter Paralympics. (Time for a brief word on this subject. The Paralympic movement started as far back as 1960, and provides the opportunity for differently abled athletes to compete on the world stage. There have been 15 Summer and 11 Winter Paralympics since then, and the 2018 Winter Paralympics start on March 9th of this year.)

Canada was determined to improve our performance at the Games, so the “Own The Podium” program commenced in 2004. This alliance of government, national sport associations, corporations and private citizens had one goal,”… to prepare Canadian athletes to reach medal finishes at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the program has since expanded to include a division for summer sports as well, known as Road to Excellence…”a) Funding was allocated to provide athletes with financial support to enable them to concentrate on training, as well as to provide them with world class coaching, world class training facilities and, most importantly, the opportunity to compete against world class opposition.

The improvements produced by this program have been dramatic. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canada won 14 Gold,  7 Silver and 5 Bronze medals, for our best showing ever. In 2014, we won 10 Gold, 10 Silver and 5 Bronze medals. By comparison, we won 20 medals at the 2008 Summer Games, 3 Gold, 9 Silver and 8 Bronze and 18 at the 2012 Summer Games, 2 Gold, 5 Silver and 11 Bronze. In 2016, we won 4 Gold, 3 Silver and 15 Bronze. Of course, we set a new record at the recently concluded Winter Games, winning 11 Gold, 8 Silver and 10 Bronze medals. There is no doubt that “Own the Podium” is a highly successful program.

However, reducing the Olympics to dry statistics divorces you from the real story, the people themselves. The Olympics are Penny Oleksiak, added to the team to get some competitive experience, and setting a record by winning 4 medals in her debut . The Olympics are Sidney Crosby scoring the winning goal. The Olympics are a group of strangers in a bar, watching the Games on TV and cheering on their country’s athletes, united, if only momentarily, by a common cause.

They are Kaetlyn Osmond, who, skating immediately after the front runner in her event had performed a nearly flawless performance, “stepped up her game” and damn near matched her competitor stroke for stroke. They are so many athletes consoling each other after a loss or a fall. They are Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, bringing down the curtain on an illustrious career with a performance paying tribute to Gord Downie. The Olympics are that swell of pride you suddenly get as you watch your national team march into the stadium.

They are Linda Thom, Jim Day, Josh Dueck, Nancy Greene, “The Crazy Canucks”, Wayne Stephenson and so many more, some household names, some buried in the sands of time. The Olympics are that faint glimmer of hope sparked when the two Koreas, divided by fear and mistrust for nearly 75 years, united to form one women’s hockey team. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The Olympics are the Pride House set up for LBGT athletes, a Canadian initiative.

The Olympics are the joy of victory and the bitter gall of defeat. They are proof that anything can happen on any day in competition. I am extremely proud of all of our athletes, you represented our country with honour on the playing field . b) The way I see it, if you are ranked the 13th best of any endeavour in the world, you are a champion.

I look forward to the Paralympics and wish all of our athletes success. Both the Paralympic and Special Olympic movements go a long way towards building an inclusive society.

See you soon

  1. a) Excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on “Own the Podium”
  2. b) David Duncan got drunk and showed some poor judgement. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

=PJM=

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