Canada Shaming Itself at Stormy Olympics
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Ohhhhhhhh, Canada. What have you done to yourself? You've invested $118 million to kick-start the performance of your Winter Olympics athletes, including the ridiculous launching of a "Top Secret'' initiative. You've declared not only that you're going to host the best Games ever, but that you intend to "own the podium'' and win the most medals. In the process, you've ignored the plight of homeless, drug-addicted people -- such as the man jabbing a syringe into his stomach on Hastings Street -- in a decrepit neighborhood just blocks from BC Place, the hockey venue, two international media centers and the glittering avenues and affluent shops of an otherwise beautiful downtown.
You've sacrificed your sound sensibilities, your lighthearted ways and your minimum-stress comfort zone to become, well, a pocket version of the United States of America, obsessed with winning at all costs. One of our funnymen, Stephen Colbert, has noticed the newfound ambition and called you "iceholes,'' saying on his Comedy Central show, "Canada has an aggressive new attitude -- in contrast to their previous slogan, `Pardon, would it trouble you if we won a medal or two? It would? OK. Never mind!'"
And worst of all? So far, you're failing to back up your yap. Best hosts on the planet? Own the podium? The Vancouver Games, after a chaotic first four days, stand to be recalled among the most ignominious, regardless of how many times your athletes eventually reach the medals stand -- noting that they've won only one gold medal so far and flopped in a men's downhill Monday in which the quirky American, Bode Miller, returned from partyland to win the bronze at Whistler.
We used to drink your Labatt's, laugh at your comedians, melt in your terrifically diverse cities and admire your peace and tranquility. Now, we're wondering what the hell is wrong with you. Have you taken mass quantities of hubris pills? "We will be the best hosts on the planet because we are hosting the planet, but on one thing there will be no compromise: These Games are ours. We will own the podium," said Marcel Aubut, who is taking over as president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
"It's not just the money that's being invested in coaching and science and travel and everything else. It's an attitudinal shift," said Chris Rudge, the COC's outgoing CEO. "There's a desire to do better, and, hopefully, sponsors are going to want to be associated with success. You can stop an advancing army but not an idea whose time has come -- Victor Hugo said that. And this is an idea whose time has come.''
"He told me: 'I will either win or die,' " David Kumaritashvili told The Associated Press at his home in the former Soviet republic. "He told me: 'Dad, I really fear that curve.' I'm a former athlete myself, and I told him: 'You just take a slower start.' But he responded: 'Dad, what kind of thing you are teaching me? I have come to the Olympics to try to win.'
"They tested that track on my son. My son was training since he was 14. He ran tracks in France, Austria and Canada, and he never suffered an injury. He has passed through all stages of the World Cup and made it to the Olympics. He couldn't have done that if he were an inexperienced athlete. Anyone can make mistake and break a leg or suffer some other injury. But to die!"
And then they had the audacity, these International Olympic Committee and luge officials, to blame the accident on Kumaritashvili's driving errors. Meanwhile, they moved the start of the weekend luge events to the lower women's start, reducing speeds dramatically in what only can be seen as an admission of culpability. On Monday, a private funeral service was held for the dead athlete in Vancouver, where his Georgia teammates attended. The body, in a brown casket, will arrive in his native land on Wednesday.
Canada deserves its share of blame for the fatality. In the zeal to win, win, win, officials protected their home-venue advantage before the Games by showing a crass reluctance to let opposing athletes use their facilities. Thus, Kumaritashvili didn't have the opportunities to grow accustomed to the track in the weeks and months leading up to the Olympics. This violated a code of sportsmanship that other host nations routinely abide by. Before the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Canadian lugers were allowed 60 to 100 extra practice runs at the facility. Before Vancouver, Canadian organizers offered only 18 extra runs to U.S. luge officials, who rejected the offer and criticized Canada for ``a lack of sportsmanship.''
"For sure, there's an advantage," said Tim Farstad, executive director of Luge Canada, defending the decision to the New York Times weeks before Kumaritashvili's crash. "That's the nature of our sport -- every country has an advantage on its own track. It's not like a 100-meter sprint, where it doesn't matter where you sprint."
Looking back, his comments reflect the height of insensitivity. And did the lockout help the mother ship? It didn't in the men's luge finals, where two Germans, Felix Loch and David Moeller, won gold and silver, and Italy's Armin Zoeggeler won bronze. The top Canadians, Samuel Edney and Jeff Christie, finished seventh and 14th.
So before the Games even started, the grand Maple Leaf initiative was in tatters. And it grew more embarrassing Monday when the nation's downhill hope, Manuel Osborne-Paradis, finished 17th, and his teammate Erik Guay, also finished off the coveted medals stand. Last fall, the New York Times reported that top downhill contenders from other nations were forced to watch a training session from behind a fence while Canadians trained alone. "Everybody was pushing to get on that downhill. That's an advantage we cannot give away," Max Gartner, Alpine Canada's chief athletic officer, said in September. How wonderful, then, when Switzerland's Didier Defago, Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal and Miller went 1-2-3.
Ohhhhhhhh, Canada. In establishing the "Own The Podium'' program, officials pledged to win 35 medals in Vancouver. So far, their athletes have won four, already falling behind the U.S. in the medals race. "If you don't reach, you can't grasp, and our athletes are ready to grasp,'' said Michael Chambers, the outgoing COS president. "There are great days ahead. Great days ahead."
When? At least Alexandre Bilodeau won the men's moguls competition in freestyle skiing, finally liberating Canada from ignominy: It had been the only country to host two Olympics, Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988, without winning gold on its own soil. But the corporate pressure to win may be too much for Canadian athletes. From the day they were born, they've been taught that Americans are haughty, self-centered and money-hungry. Now, they're being told to adopt the same attitudes? "Canadians are excited about going to these Games on a mission," Rudge told USA Today, "while still retaining the qualities of humility and humbleness. Winning in that context are nice things to aspire to, but marrying them to more of the American attitude of, `We think we're the best and, damn it, we're going to step up and try to do it.' We live beside the elephant. We're a tenth your size. But we'd be fools not to learn from what our neighbors do well."
The elephant? Maybe Canadians need to cheat more. That's what American athletes do best, right? -- although, in fairness, we should be proud of classy Olympians such as Apolo Anton Ohno.
How fascinating, amid the push for gold and glory, to hear the boss of the country's hockey effort suggest his team isn't the favorite. No team is saddled with higher expectations than Team Canada, yet new executive director Steve Yzerman, eight years after Wayne Gretzky built a gold-medal winner, says Russia should be favored.
"They've got some of the top forwards in the world right now," said the former Detroit Red Wings great. "They're the No. 1-ranked team in the world. They're the favorite going into this tournament. We have to play our best, and with a little bit of luck the other countries can dethrone them. Do you think they'll have a parade in Moscow if the Russians win the silver medal? They won't. The expectation in Russia is gold. The expectation in Sweden is gold. Whether they admit it or not, the USA is in this to win a gold medal."
Hey, if nothing else, the Canadian women's hockey team won its first two games in routs: 18-0 over Slovakia and 10-1 over Switzerland. But even that squad can't escape criticism, taking heat for running up the score.
The "Own The Podium'' missions extends to clothing. Seems the long-track speedskaters are wearing state-of-the-art bodysuits said to be more aerodynamic than human skin. So far in long-track events, the Canadians have one bronze medal.
And this Top Secret enterprise? Would you believe they've studied whether curling brooms actually melt the ice, rigged up a missile radar system to track skiers and built a "human slingshot'' to hurl fast-track speedskaters into corners? The price tag for that mission: $8 million.
Production of the events themselves hasn't been swell, either. During the Opening Ceremony, a glitch left Canadian sports legend Catriona LeMay Doan awkwardly standing alone -- apart from Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash and Nancy Greene -- when one of the cauldron's four pillars malfunctioned. And Monday, issues with ice-surfacing machines created long delays at the speedskating venue.
Ohhhhhhhh, Canada. The elephant is laughing at you. Between a fatality on the luge track, the incessant rain, the delays on the ski hills and those scary protests in which crazies wear masks and break windows at fancy department stores, you seem unfit to host the Games.
Much less Own The Podium.