To understand why Canadians approached the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games with a mix of excitement and trepidation, you have to start with a bit of history. Canada has twice hosted Olympic Games - one summer and one winter - and both times the experience was a little less than satisfying.
In 1976, the Summer Games were in Montreal, an event that turned into a financial sinkhole, complete with the embarrassment of a stadium that wasn't completed in time for the opening ceremony. When it was over, taxpayers in the province of Quebec were left reaching into their wallets for roughly 30 years afterward to pay for it. Twelve years later, at the Winter Games in Calgary, things went much more smoothly.
But as the ultimate in polite hosts, Canadians spent those Olympics - just as they had in Montreal - watching athletes from other countries steal almost all the glory. There is only one nation on earth that has hosted an Olympic Games without winning a gold medal and Canada has done it twice. The medal counts from those hosting experiences were five silver and six bronze in 1976, followed by two silver and three bronze in 1988. But no gold.
Which is why if there was an unofficial theme to the Vancouver Winter Games, which started yesterday, it might be something like "No More Mister Nice Guy". This time around, Canada is approaching the Olympics with a more aggressive attitude, a touch of bravado and the conviction that it can lead the medal parade. There will be 19,000 volunteers at this year's Olympics but Canadians are not planning to volunteer any space on the podium.
With un-Canadian brashness, this time the home team means business. "We are going there to win," said Chris Rudge, the Canadian Olympic committee chief executive. "We used to have the 'give it your best shot and be nice to people' attitude. But I can't understand why we can't win and still be nice people." Or not so nice as has been suggested by some foreign athletes training in Canada leading up to the Games who have complained about unfair limiting of practice times at Olympic venues in British Columbia and Calgary.
Canadians are surely destined for a better showing at these Games, in part because the International Olympic Committee keeps adding sports to the Winter Games at which Canadians tend to excel, such as curling, short-track speed skating and women's ice hockey, to name a few. There is ample evidence based on world championship results this past year that Canadian athletes just may be able to achieve the country's lofty competitive goals. But there is also nervousness, given that Canada's best athletes have developed a reputation of underwhelming performances at Olympic time.
No wonder Canada's Olympic broadcasters came up with a campaign called "I Believe", a slogan that is emblazoned on everything from chocolate bars to billboards and television commercials. And for the most part Canadians do seem to believe in these Games, their athletes and the notion that all the trouble and expense associated with them will be worth it. From shortly after the Games were awarded to Vancouver in 2003, there was a determination to make this a different kind of Olympics for Canada.
A Cdn$117 million (Dh401m) programme sponsored by government and corporate Canada called "Own The Podium" was launched, aimed at providing Canadian athletes with the best training, coaching and technology to win medals. All of this support has been galvanised by the world's longest domestic Olympic torch relay, which is travelling 45,000km, making it accessible to roughly 90 per cent of the country's 33.5million people.
An unprecedented media buildup has turned many of Canada's normally obscure winter athletes into household names. They pop out of television promos and commercials and all corners of the media and advertising. All of which has fed the understanding that these Olympics have the potential to be not just as a defining moment for Canadian sport, but as Canada for a nation. Canadians, in general, are not as driven by patriotism as their southern neighbours in the United States, and even the simple notion of Canadian patriotism has blown hot and cold over the past 30 years.
But a general good feeling about their home country these days (fuelled in no small part by the fact the recession that devastated US labour and property markets over the past 18 months didn't hit nearly as hard in Canada) is being taken to new heights by anticipation of what they will witness over 16 days in February. "There is no question these Games will initiate greater patriotism and pride in Canadians for the country's ability to organise and perform on the world stage," said Brian Williams, a Canadian television host for the Games, who is working his 12th Olympics.
"Canada is a major power in winter sports with a very real chance of finishing near the top or even on top of the medal standings." Though the build-up to any Olympic Games involves its share of issues that have nothing to do with sports, those have been minimised in the run-up to the Vancouver Games. To the surprise of few, the budget for these Games has grown considerably since the original projections back in 2003.
And by the autumn of 2008 there was grave concern about what affect the worldwide recession would have on the ability to balance the books. Though the final bill for these Olympics will not be clear until after the dust settles, there is no sense that there will be the kind of financial disaster the country experienced 34 years ago in Montreal. When the economic slump took a bite out of the sponsorship dollars the host committee hoped to raise, the International Olympic Committee stepped up last summer win a payment of $22m to add to Vancouver's $27m contingency fund, ensuring there would not be too much cutting of corners.
That and an improving economic climate through last year allowed the Games to stay in line with their $1.75 billion budget without considering the kinds of drastic measures that might have seemed likely a year earlier. As late as last autumn, organisers were insisting the Games would not run a deficit, although that budget does not include $580 million that has been spent to build venues, nor the $1 billion cost for the Olympic athletes village on the south-east side of Vancouver's False Creek.
The construction of that village, however, became a near fiasco when the US hedge fund backing the project stopped advancing money to a private-sector developer over concerns about cost overruns and market uncertainty. Despite construction delays, the project was completed on time, albeit with much debate and controversy as public dollars poured into the project to fill the void. Just how much it ultimately costs taxpayers will depend partly on the post-Olympics real estate market as units on the site are scheduled to be sold off in May as a mixed-use waterfront residential community.
While things are looking up, caution is still the buzz word going into the Games according to John McLaughlin, the Vancouver committee's chief financial officer. "It's what lies ahead not what's behind us that is the most important," he said. Organisers have avoided other controversies by taking a proactive approach to potential problems that have plagued recent Games. For example, there was ample reason to believe that holding the Games on the lands of four aboriginal tribes, lands that have never been formally ceded to the government of Canada, would be a lightning rod for protest.
But agreements were struck with each of the four bands which signed cash-and-land deals worth around $20 million apiece in exchange for supporting the Olympic Games. Four native chiefs have also been granted Head of State status during the Games. Organisers say it is the first time an organising committee has entered into such a relationship with indigenous peoples. "The level of participation hands down is going to be the legacy in that it's given us the opportunity to educate the world (about) who we are," said Justin George, the chief of the Tsleil-Waututh band.
Canada's indigenous people will also play a major role in the opening ceremonies. "The serious recognition and respect of indigenous people will be a major legacy of these Games," said Williams. Not all of Canada's aboriginal people have been behind the Games wholeheartedly, with some expressing dismay at public dollars being directed towards such a lavish event while many of their people remain socially disadvantaged.
But for the most part, Canada's native people seem to have embraced the Games, as is suggested by the torch relay making its way through more than 100 native communities. It appeared the relay would be blocked from passing through one native territory in Quebec, where its people refused to allow the torch's federal police escort on native soil. But even that controversy was averted when a deal was struck to have the federal police re-join the torch after it had returned to public land.
There was a similar proactive approach to environmental concerns. In its bid to hold the Games, Vancouver 2010 committed that new buildings and infrastructure required for the Olympics would be a showcase of the best in green building design and construction techniques. Oddly, the loudest voices of protest towards the Games have come from a group of athletes - female ski jumpers. Ski jumping is the one males only event at the Games, which led an international coalition of female ski jumpers to argue that Games organisers were violating Canada's Charter of Rights.
But on December 22, the country's Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch appeal to have women's ski jumping added to the Olympics agenda. As the Games opened, the biggest potential headache was something over which organisers have no control: the weather. Though most of Canada is frozen hard from early December until mid-March, lower British Columbia is the warmest region of the country, better known for incessant rain and mild temperatures than snow and ice.
During the second week of January, with temperatures around Vancouver hitting double-digits in Celsius, organisers were forced to close the alpine run at Cypress Mountain, site of the Olympic snowboarding and freestyle skiing events. The balmy weather is showing no sign of going away, with early morning temperatures in Vancouver yesterday around 10C as light rain continued to fall. And so on with the show.
There was a sense in 1976 and to some degree in 1988 that hosting the Olympics was as much about a comparatively young nation being recognised by the rest of the world as anything else. This time it's different. These Olympics are far less about being noticed by outsiders than about Canadians celebrating themselves. And when it's all over, they should have a few gold medals with which to remember it all. @Email:email@example.com