Posted by: Lauren on Feb 22, 2010
Days 8-11: The Problems with the Podium
Canada's medal haul has slowed down in the past three days, and as of Monday evening, we have only earned two more (bringing our total to 9) (another medal is expected in the Ice Dance competition). In an exciting Men's skeleton race, Jon Montgomery edged out Latvian slider Martins Dukurs. His gregarious personality left few Canadians wondering how he felt about his win: the man was ecstatic. It is nice to see someone celebrating their medal, when so much of the news lately has been about disappointments and apologies (more on that in a minute). The other medal for Canada came from speed-skater Kristina Groves, who added a silver to go with her bronze (from the 3000 meters). Her silver medal came in the 1500 meters, an event won by Ireen Wust of the Netherlands.
For the love of god, can we please stop telling people we expect them to make the podium? This weekend saw large number of "podium favorites" fall to the all-too-Canadian fourth position (and sometimes much lower like in the case of the Alpine skiing team). The women's skeleton world champion and "medal favourite", Melissa Hollingsworth, bumped her sled on the side of the track in two spots and it cost her not only the gold, but any spot on the podium (she finished 5th). And, if we are to believe the media, she has been in tears ever since. I don't think it is the Canadian public that is putting the pressure on these athletes, but perhaps it is the now famous "Own the Podium" program which funneled a lot of money into different programs. Maybe it should have been called "Try to do better, Canada". They tried, they missed, big deal. As I have said before, given our track record, we need to be happy with any medal result, and we need to expect that there aren't going to be that many of them.
If they were to hand out medals for people who are "supposed to win", Canada would lead the way, I am sure of it. But the Olympics aren't about what is supposed to happen. They are about who can raise their game that extra notch on one day that comes about every four years. It is an extreme amount of pressure which, for many countries (mostly those not in Canada), leads to extreme results. There is heartbreak too, of course there is, but in the countries we like to compare ourselves to (the U.S., Russia, China, Germany), heartbreak for one athlete often translates to victory for another.
The medal totals for these countries remain high because even if their top-seeded athletes have a bad race and miss the podium, they have 5 more top competitors ready and able to take their place. In Canada, we have one or two people who are "supposed to medal" and then we have one or two people who are happy to place in the top 30 in the world. A lot of these differences can be accounted for because of population differences- the U.S. has ten times as many people, they should probably come out with more medals than us.
Another part of Canada's medal plan that I think is backfiring is their decision to restrict other countries access to the Olympic facilities. In some cases, the Canadian Olympic Committee has also restricted who is allowed to train with our Canadian athletes (like speed-skater Denny Morrison who has not produced any of the medals he was "supposed to" before the games began-Morrison was training with American champion Shani Davis who did finish at the top of the podium).
Here is the problem with this approach-yes, it gives our athletes exclusive access to the terrains and tracks that the events are held on, but more significantly, it doesn't allow them to compete with their rivals on a day-to-day basis. We are talking about the most elite athletes in the world, and those that can perform on any surface in any conditions. The advantages for Canada of limiting their access seem kind of silly in retrospect. Whereas seeing another medal contender push the envelope in practice could have made Canadians push themselves to do better.
When we are talking about margins of 1000ths of seconds, the only difference between gold and silver is the will to be the best, and the will to win. This is the quality that some Canadian Olympians have lacked in the past and the quality that the "Own the Podium" program hoped to elicit. Training alongside their greatest competitors is one way that Canadians could have gained that confidence and that drive. The pressure was always going to be on them, but knowing that they could beat the other countries no matter the situation might have helped them do it on the biggest stage these sports have to offer.
I don't want to take anything away from those athletes who have risen to the challenge and brought home medals, and certainly not from any athlete who came in fourth, fifth or 31st. This problem comes from how our media hype our athletes, the need for athletic sponsors to see a certain kind of result, and the misunderstanding of what it takes to "Own the Podium". I didn't expect Canada to come out on top of the medal standings like the Canadian Olympic Committee did, and I think I am the saner for it.