Wednesday was Canada’s best day for Olympic medals, with the teams of Kaillie Humphries/Heather Moyes and Helen Upperton/Shelley-Ann Brown winning gold and silver in a 1-2 punch in women’s two-person bobsleigh. The women's 5,000 metre speed skating relay team earned a silver medal. Adding to the medal haul was Clara Hughes, who earned her sixth career Olympic medal, a bronze in 5000m long track speed skating.
Although Team Canada’s 7-3 thrashing of the Russian Federation grabbed all the headlines, it was a banner day for Canada’s less glamorous Olympic sports that may have helped justify the Canadian Olympic Committee’s controversial Own the Podium program, just as it appears to be on its last legs.
Designed to give Canada the highest medal count at the 2010 Vancouver games, the Own the Podium program increased spending on winter Olympic sports by $21-million annually over the course of five years, with money coming from provincial and federal governments as well as private sponsors like Bell Canada. The goal was for Canada to earn a total of 35 podium finishes.
This plan has drawn criticism from all corners. Other countries (particularly the British media) have described it as an “un-Canadian” initiative. Apparently, it’s against the national character to be competitive in anything other than men’s hockey. A proposterous claim given that the Olympics, by definition, is about pushing the envelope and achieving new heights.
At the same time, some domestic media were unhappy that so much public funding - $118 million in total – was being spent on athletics when it could be applied to pressing issues like education, health care or the flagging economy.
As of this writing, Canada has stepped on to the podium 15 times, and might finish in the top three in men and women’s hockey, men and women’s curling and speed skating. Realistically, Canada will finish with around 20 medals, just shy of their 2006 Turin total of 24, and well short of Own the Podium’s stated goal of 35. On Monday, the COC announced that it was no longer aiming to top the medal tables at Vancouver.
In other words, CEO Roger Jackson and his staff have disappointed just about everybody, except the athletes.
Although the program has not met expectations, I think that in the long run it will make Canada into a more formidable sporting nation. At long last, Canadian athletes are getting the support they so richly deserve, allowing them to finally put their best foot forward in international competition.
Their performance at the Vancouver games will serve as an inspiration to Canada’s youth, spawning a new generation of world-class athletes. Yes, the money could have been spent on other projects, but giving Canadian children role models to look up to is certainly a worthy pursuit.
Further, this initiative is just catching Canada up to the rest of the world. In many cases, the athletes from other nations in the winter Olympics are members of the military.
For example, Tuffy LaTour, the coach of Canadian men’s bobsleigh team, is a retired army sergeant from the United States who competed with the American military’s sledding team.
Dan Humphries, the husband of Canadian gold medalist Kaillie Humphries, and a member of Canada’s four-man bobsleigh team, was originally a member of the British Army’s slidding team.
Canada, with its significantly smaller population and military complex, needs a boost to its athletics programs, and Own the Podium is it.
Just as the Calgary Olympics created a home base for Canadian sports, the combination of the Vancouver games and Own the Podium will start a new golden age in the Canadian Olympic movement. It appears as though most of Own the Podium's sponsors, both public and private, will stop funding after the closing ceremonies this weekend, which would be a shame.