Canada Sporting a New Attitude

When asked if the $118 million government-funded movement to encourage Canadian athletes to win the most medals at these Olympics was a good idea, Catherine Weller put her lips up to a bong and inhaled.

Good and done, she blew the smoke into the air of the Cannabis Culture Headquarters here and decided it was just one more dumb way to waste money on these Vancouver Games.

“There are clearly bigger issues for the province and the country to take care of,” said Weller, 21.

In the U.S., Nike once ran an ad campaign declaring “you don’t win silver, you lose gold.” In China, the government targets young athletes and puts them into disciplines that one day might yield glory. In Russia, a sports minister boldly predicts 40 medals at these Games.

Canada is still waiting for its first gold medal as a host nation, shut out in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. So in the lead up to Friday night’s torch-lighting ceremony, the country engaged in a wholly un-Canadian move: unapologetically, and quite vocally, it declared that it is done getting walked over in the Olympics. Canada created the Own the Podium program that offered research, training and, perhaps most important, new expectations for its athletes. It even funded a technology study dubbed “Top Secret.”

Canada’s performances at the Olympics are sporadic. It finished fourth and third, respectively, at the last two Winter Games. At the Beijing Games, it took Canada seven days to win its first medal. By that point, Togo, Tajikistan and Vietnam all had one. Kazakhstan had four.

Weller, like most people in the cannabis shops and specialty boutiques along funky West Hastings Street downtown, is a laid-back person. Canada is a unique country, taking pride in its measured reason and thoughtfulness. Vancouver is arguably its most relaxed city, the kind of place with hash shops. Such rampant, blatant competitiveness shocks some of the senses. It’s about valuing the journey, not the destination, appreciating participation, not blind patriotism.

Not being like the Americans or the Chinese or the Russians is a point of pride. It’s not something to apologize about, let alone spend $118 million trying to change.

The goal is no more woe, Canada.

“We can do it, we will do it,” said Roger Jackson, the chief executive of Own the Podium. He’s so certain that he set the medal goal at 30. It’s not the equal of the uber-aggressive Russians. It is high enough that, should it be met, Canada might win the medal race. (In 2006, Germany took home a Turin-best 29.)

For Jackson, demanding excellence is the first step to achieving it. Canada has just 33 million citizens, so for it to compete with Russia (141 million), the U.S. (305 million) or China (1.3 billion), it needs to have a new, go-for-the-throat mentality.

Anyone who’s had a Canadian punch to the face during a hockey fight knows that Canada isn’t wholly against sporting aggression. It’s simply a nation with other sensibilities.

Its murder rate is around one-fourth of the United States’ (2007 homicides: America, 14,831; Canada, 594). And while homicides per capita isn’t generally considered a harbinger of Olympic success, there’s no arguing that offing someone is about the most aggressive of human behaviors. When you’re from a culture where it’s somewhat common, elbowing a competitor for position on a short-track speedskating race can seem like second nature.

Even in their most popular sport, rough-and-tumble hockey, their greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, was known as smooth and sportsmanlike, not a cutthroat competitor.

Still, the Canadian government is trying to usher in a new mentality. The signs of “Go Canada!” are everywhere, from the sides of 7-Eleven coffee cups to signage hanging around British Columbia.

“This phrase, ‘Own the Podium’, isn’t this a little arrogant for Canada? No it’s not,” Canadian Olympic Committee chief Chris Rudge told the Associated Press. “Being self-confident and being the nice people we’ve always been at Games, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be both. You can be aggressive and win with grace and humility the way Canadians always have. But let’s do it more often. Let’s win more often.”

To most of the world, this seems second nature. The feeling here, for some, is what was wrong with third best in total medals?

“Saying we should be No. 1 is a very bad idea,” said Marc Emery, owner of the Cannabis Culture and president of the BC Marijuana Party. “People should try to do a good job and not be No. 1. When someone is trying to be No. 1, everyone else loses.

“Those who strive to be No. 1 compete with others who strive to be No. 1. It’s not sustainable,” Emery said. “It’s unhealthy.”

The government claims most Canadians are in favor of a robust Olympic machine, and it has commissioned polls to prove it. That wasn’t the opinion in laid-back Vancouver on Friday. While West Hastings Street may be the extreme, it isn’t the exception.

In the rousing nationalistic poem “We Are More” at the Opening Ceremony, Shane Koyczan declared, “Some would say what defines us is something as simple as please and thank you. As for you’re welcome, we say that, too.”

The crowd at BC Place roared.

Seventy-five percent of all Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border. They watch American television and consume American media that details the ultra-competitive nature of American sports, business and politics. Yet, they’ve long rejected the notion that their national identity is somehow tied to sporting success.

It was uniquely Canadian, not caring if they won.

Except in hockey, of course.

– Article from Yahoo! Sports.