Mon, September 23, 2013

How will Canadians react to 'softer Games'?

By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency


Former head of the Canadian Olympic Committee Chris Rudge says Canadians' attitude toward international sports changed during the Vancouver Games. (CHRIS DOUCETTE/QMI Agency file photo)

LONDON - There was dancing in the streets of Vancouver and all across the land in the celebratory joy that was the final afternoon and evening of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

It was a feeling new to normally modest and forever apologetic Canada, a country unfamiliar with sporting elation.

"I firmly believe we learned a lot about ourselves in those Olympics," said Chris Rudge, the former head of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "I think the success we had in Vancouver was driven as much by a change of attitude as anything else. As Canadians, we're not ashamed to say we want to win anymore. We won in Vancouver and we liked it.

"We're no longer afraid to say we want to be the best. And we can do it and not diminish the values of Canadianism. I think Vancouver changed us as a society."

So what are Canadians to feel now, as the eve of the 2012 Summer Olympics approaches? How will they respond post-Vancouver, without chests to thump, without morning-line favourites, with the challenging goal of finishing in the Top 12 amongst competing countries?

"There's the potential here for this to be a softer Games for us," said Rudge. "But if you look at it with perspective, you realize there's a huge difference between the Winter Games and the Summer Games. The Summer Games are much more difficult. In the Winter Olympics, there are 78 countries, but really only 20 to 35 are competitive at anything. In the Summer Games, there's what, 205 countries, and almost every country has somebody in some sport who is a star.

"It's important, I think, that Canadians understand that."

Every Olympic Games takes on its own feel, its own personality, charts its own course, not just for Canadian athletes but for athletes from all over the world. There are always moments that are made for Olympics. There are always those performances and accomplishments that take your breath away. There are always stories you couldn't possibly invent.

That is forever the charm of any Olympics.

But these Games begin differently, with no poster boys or poster girls of mammoth expectations. There is no Jennifer Heil, an athlete expected to bring home medal No. 1. There is no Donovan Bailey, with a match race against the fastest in the world. There is no one event to focus on, the way hockey played out in Vancouver. There is no cherry atop the sundae, one event that will determine success or failure of these Games for Canadian athletes.

Really, not a single Canadian is a sure-thing to win any gold medal here. There are hopefuls like Catharine Pendrel, the mountain bike champion, who has been touted for gold. There are hopefuls like Dylan Armstrong, the former world champion shot putter, who should be on the podium in athletics, where Canada rarely wins medals anymore.

These are Canada's best and brightest: But many might not be ready to take on the world. Or in the case of the most familiar names and faces on the Canadian team, many have already had their best Olympic days.

The signature moments of these Games will come in the 100- and 200-metres on the track, with Usain Bolt running against countryman Yohan Blake, and in the pool, where Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte will do battle. That is for all the world to watch.

In Vancouver two years ago, so much of the talk was about owning the podium. Here, the Games may be more traditionally Canadian -- more polite, less about ownership, more about renting and hoping than taking ownership.

The Olympics here will get underway with the usual concern for security, traffic and transportation, just as every Olympics has begun in recent times. They almost always start badly: They almost always end well.

But this will be as much a test for the Canadian at home as it will be for the Canadians here. Will there be excitement or anticipation for the expected final waltzes of the great Olympians like Clara Hughes and Simon Whitfield and Daniel Nestor, like Emilie Heymans and Alexandre Despatie and Karen Cockburn.

"I think Canadians should be proud, as always," said Rudge. "It's not like it used to be. The kids aren't going there to lose. They're not going as participants. I think we've put to rest the days where an athlete says, 'I'm here, I've made it, now let's party.'"

This should be a Canadian Games about women, with the much-heralded cycling team, the women's wrestling team, the one-woman boxing team, the female divers, the Canadian soccer team leading the way. It's not out of the question to predict that two-thirds of Canada's rather modest total of medals will be won here by women,

many in sports that do not resonate the way hockey resonated in Vancouver. But the challenge for Canadians, its athletes and, yes, those watching, is to find Olympic success in places and from places that are not necessarily apparent.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve