Canadians had a collective bout of great expectations when it came to the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The bold prediction that we’d Own the Podium in Vancouver has, unfortunately for some, ended in disappointment culminating with the suggestion our athletes have in fact Blown the Podium. The questions of what went wrong with Own the Podium started in some cases a week before the games’ closing ceremonies, with even Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Rudge getting in on the early post mortem, promising to “eviscerate this program to see what happened.”
The spectre of missed expectations has led to serious questions about the future of Canada’s Olympic programs, specifically funding for high-performance athletes. Own the Podium received $117 million over five years in the lead up to Vancouver, including $55 million from Ottawa, with the rest coming from the provinces and corporate sponsors. While the federal government has committed to the program for another two years, a funding gap still exists with provinces and corporate sponsors ready or likely to leave. According to a report in The Globe and Mail, major sponsors like Bell Canada ($15 million), General Motors of Canada ($4 million) are done with the program. It’s unlikely the federal government will cover the shortfall in the upcoming budget.
Our nation’s fondness for self-deprecating humour notwithstanding, Canada has not blown the podium. Our disappointment is rooted in an uncharacteristically Canadian boast first uttered by the Canadian Olympic Committee, not the athletes in competition. Own the Podium has put undue pressure on a group of performers who were already going to feel it in spades on home soil. While some would argue high-performance athletes should be used to such pressure, the intense spotlight that accompanies the games goes beyond World Cup or Olympic competitions abroad. Few other host nations have made similar boasts, including the high-powered U.S. at Salt Lake and future 2014 hosts, Sochi, Russia.
The phrase Own the Podium could continue to haunt Canadian athletes well after tomorrow’s closing ceremonies. Sponsorship dollars were bound to dwindle after the spotlight of Vancouver, however the failure to top the podium and the subsequent controversy about poor return on investment makes it harder to court more corporate or public dollars.
That’s unfortunate, because there is value in supporting athletics, both for athletes and the nation. Our athletes have pulled in more gold for Canada than in any previous Olympics. Canadians came together to rally behind our athletes and were rewarded with many emotional highlights that should not be overshadowed by dollars and cents. These games gave us our first gold medals on home soil, along with one of the most emotional performances in sport in Joannie Rochette wining bronze just days after losing her mother to a heart attack.
Canadians have and will continue to see a return on investment from Vancouver. Our athletes, no matter their final medal count, have captured the heart of a nation, inspiring the athletes of tomorrow and promoting fitness in general. That kind of value should not be underestimated, especially in a nation where obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes are on the rise.
Sure there were letdowns, but overall Canada came together for these games, shirking regional differences and inferiority complexes in favour of patriotism, swagger and the Maple Leaf. That sounds like a success.