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The Games Experience

Inside the fences, up close and out late
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It took six and a half years to organize the 2010 Olympics and it could take at least that long to unravel them and what they mean for Vancouver and Whistler, the province of B.C. and Canada as a whole.

For example, at this point nobody is sure exactly how much they will cost. Estimates range as high as $6 billion, but there will probably never be a full and accurate accounting for the simple reason that it's impossible even to agree to terms of reference. Is the Sea to Sky Highway upgrade an Olympic cost or merely a well-timed infrastructure improvement? How about the $2 billion Canada Line?

Will Olympic venue legacies be self-sustaining in the long-term or will they require additional funding on top of the endowment fund that was set aside?

On the opposite end of the spectrum some venues could even recover their costs over the next few decades, like the cross-country trails at Whistler Olympic Park or the curling rink in Vancouver.

And how do you accurately account for all the staff hours spent on the Games within federal, provincial and municipal governments over the years?

Weighing the benefits is also next to impossible. You can credit the Olympics for any increase in tourism in the future but there are other factors to consider as well, such as the health of the economy, weather (especially for Whistler), receiving approved destination status from China, the value of currencies, the health of the airline industry and the efforts made by the tourism industry itself to attract visitors with the encouragement of the province. B.C.'s forestry and wood industries may benefit from their exposure at medals ceremonies, their pavilion and the Richmond Oval but the industry also benefits from economic growth, housing starts in Canada and the U.S., trade missions, favourable exchange rates, technology, investment, entrepreneurship, innovation and changes to the building code - factors that have little to do with hosting the Games.

So let's leave the economics aside for now.

In the aftermath the only way to properly value the Games is in the context of your own experiences. What did you love? What did you hate? Did you make money working three jobs, or get paid the same for working three times as hard? Or were you laid off for the month?

Were you a volunteer? Did your landlord kick you out or hike your rent? Did you meet anybody interesting or make new friends? Were you inspired? Disappointed? Did we win medals in the events that matter to you? Did you have the kind of experiences that you will remember forever, or would you rather forget about the Games and move on?

When all is said and done, was it all worth it?

The Olympics is all about emotions, and no matter where you're from it was a roller coaster. The 2010 Games lurched from tragedy to victory, from elation to disappointment, and finished on a high note. They were a reality check in some ways and a confirmation in others.

How will you measure the Games?

 

Inside the Mixed Media Zones

My sincere apology to all the athletes out there. No human being should be subjected to the kind of interrogation that was going on in the mixed media zones during the 2010 Games. I don't blame many of you for sneaking out or storming past - maybe you were upset, maybe you were offended by the media and our inane, clumsy questions.

Where were we a few weeks or months ago when you were having good results?

First of all, it's worth noting that media scrutiny was intense. There was more media at the 2010 Winter Games than at any previous Winter Olympics, with an estimated 10,000 reporters in Vancouver and Whistler through the Games. The audience was enormous, with about 98 per cent of Canadians watching, listening or reading about the Games. Roughly 3.5 billion people - about half the world's population - watched all or some of the opening ceremonies.

Many of those visiting reporters were unkind. Columnists in the British press were particularly tough on the Games from the beginning. They found themselves in a position of having to defend themselves from the backlash and accusations of negative reporting and bending the truth. It seems the columnist who used the words "Worst Games Ever," Lawrence Donegan, was really just making fun of the common tendency of Olympic organizers to call every Games the "Best Games Ever." You see? It was all just clever wordplay...

But while the quality of the Games themselves have been hotly debated for these past few weeks - and rightly so, given the circumstances - it's also fair to question the quality of the media. While many reporters focused on the negative aspects of the Games - and they were far from perfect, earning nicknames like "the Glitch Games" and the "Calamity Games" - most did a fairly good job balancing their coverage. Some good things, golf reporter Lawrence Donegan's opinions aside, did happen in Vancouver and Whistler. Athletes did amazing things. People, overwhelmingly, were happy. The weather, sometimes, co-operated.

Still, I believe the media has a lot to answer for when it comes to reporting sports, and sports are the real reason the Games exist.

During events athletes were required to pass through a series of fences after competing. First came a long bank of television cameras and reporters - those networks that paid for the right to broadcast the Olympics. Next were doping control representatives who would tag which athletes to test (top five and then random), then the international wire services, then a scrum of disorganized media and print. I belonged to the latter. Then, and only then, were the athletes allowed to celebrate/commiserate with their friends, family and teammates. It could take a gold medallist an hour or more to come out the other side of the media gauntlet.

After that the winners would attend a press conference, attended by all the same people.

The television media monopolized most of the athletes', asking dozens of questions that they knew would often be condensed into a few seconds of footage for the evening news.

The print media scrums also had to be repeated over and over as only so many reporters could get their recorders within reach of an athlete's mouth at any given time.

I was pushed against fences, weighted down by reporters resting their tired recorder arms on my shoulders, squeezed out by taller or more aggressive reporters - height and reach is a big advantage in journalism it seems - and had my questions interrupted by the questions of others.

Some of the questions were also ridiculous, things that anyone who understands the sport or knows the athletes would never ask - and some were nothing short of brutal.

Dutch speed skater Sven Kramer is something of a hero among athletes after an NBC reporter in the pits asked him who he was, where he was from and what he won. Kramer, who just won a gold medal moments earlier, asked her, "Are you stupid?"

Everybody had a job to do, but the reality is that some reporters only show up to Olympic Games and really have no idea what happened in the four years between Torino and Whistler. Hence their obsession with the past.

U.S. snowboardcross star Lindsey Jacobellis was asked over and over about her decision to grab her board over a jump in the 2006 Games - something she has explained over and over was an effort to centre her weight over her board. This time, asking questions about why she grabbed her board again at Cyrpess, her frustration showed through. "It's called snowboarding," she snapped in the press conference. "You should try it, it's fun."

Her scorn for the Olympic media was hard to conceal.

"It's unfortunate that the rest of the world just sees this race and four years ago," she said. "I don't have a good track record with the general public."

Whistler's Maëlle Ricker was also asked several times about her crash in the snowboardcross finals in 2006, and whether that motivated her for 2010 - completely overlooking everything that happened in 2010 and her performance at the international level before and after the 2006 Games.

While the Olympic Games are special, snowboardcross is pretty much the same event whether Ricker is racing a World Cup or at the X-Games. There is not a racer anywhere who can win every day and any athlete that can't look forward after a bad race or even a bad season probably won't have a career as long or as incredible as Ricker's.

It's as if members of the media came into every event with a pre-conceived narrative to tell, usually a stirring story of overcoming some adversity, and were merely asking athletes questions to reinforce the narrative. But four years is a long time, probably a third of an average athletes' career, and they have other things to worry about.

Journalists love their stories about adversity. American skier Lindsey Vonn was asked endless questions about her sore shin. Manuel Osborne-Paradis was asked whether the pressure of competing on his home hill got to him. Bode Miller has had good results in 2010 and the media are selling the story that he must therefore be a different person and no longer the crazy bad boy of skiing he was just a few years ago.

Reporters really can't fathom that anyone would do anything for fun, therefore athletes must be extremely serious people who need to be asked serious questions about serious things.

Determined to find the cloud within the silver lining, one reporter from Maclean's magazine was particularly brutal at the alpine events. He asked Whistler's Britt Janyk why the Canadians as a whole were doing so poorly (something no athlete could possibly answer) and whether she considered her own performance in the super G a "failure" - despite the fact that she started her race with podium-worthy split times and then recovered from an almost certain crash to provide one of the most incredible ski highlights of the Games. This wasn't a one-off question either, it was asked of all the athletes. The same reporter also asked an up-and-coming Canadian ski jumper, "why is your team so dreadful?"

Who needs the British media when we have Maclean's ?

 

Own The Podium

I'm looking around the house for three Loonies (who carries change these days?) - I'll explain why in a moment.

After winning the right to host the 2010 Olympics, thoughts quickly turned to our athletes, their medal chances and the fact that no Canadian had won a gold medal on home soil at previous Games in 1976 and 1988. Canada was the only host country not to win gold.

At the time of the bid our winter sports organizations were generally under-funded, under-supported and under-covered by our national media, yet still managed to do quite a lot with what they had. Sometimes that meant concentrating their efforts on a handful of athletes with medal potential, and leaving other athletes who were contenders at home.

With the spotlight coming our way Canada wanted to be a contender. We didn't want to end the Games empty-handed.

With the Canadian Olympic Committee taking the lead, governments, Olympic organizers and national sports organizations came up with a plan to increase funding and support for sports and to foster medal contenders across the board, with the aggressive goal of placing first among nations in the 2010 medal tally. They called the program Own The Podium.

It was audacious and daring. With Own The Podium Canadian athletes would not go into the Games as the usual underdogs, but as contenders in more events than ever before. By showing confidence in our athletes we hoped to make them more confident in their abilities.

By all accounts it was working. In 2009 Canadian athletes won more medals in world championship events than any other nation, with solid contenders in sports where previously Canadians had merely been participants.

It's a little known secret in the general public, but it's actually much harder to qualify for a world championships than it is to qualify for an Olympic Games. Athletes can't just show up at a few FIS- or IBU-sanctioned events and earn the minimum points to qualify, you have to compete hard all season and rank in your sport to get an invite. In sports like alpine skiing you have to be in the top-25 to go to worlds, while in some technical events at the 2010 Games there were almost 90 skiers in the field. Teams are also limited as to how many athletes they can bring, and as a result typically have to leave home some solid medal contenders who are ranked far higher on the World Cup than other athletes who participate.

But despite promising results at world championships and a decent start to the 2010 Games, in the second week the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own The Podium were forced to acknowledge that Canada had no chance of winning more medals than any other nation.

Despite Canada's strongest performance in years, we still placed third in the overall medal count - right where we were in 2006, albeit with two more medals (a total of 26) to our credit. The fact that 14 medals were gold is a matter for the history books - no host nation has ever won so much gold at a Winter Games.

But while that's nothing to be ashamed of, and plenty of Canadian athletes placed in the top five or six, there's no question that Own The Podium didn't work exactly as planned. The media and sometimes athletes started to play the blame game. Some fans were misled to believe that having contenders was the same thing as having favourites. Other nations voiced their scorn for the tone of the program and for keeping them away from venues to give Canadian athletes a home field advantage.

U.S. snowboardcross racer Nate Holland famously said, "They can take it (the podium) home, we're just going to rent it for the month," on the eve of the American team's best Winter Games performance in history - 37 medals, nine of them gold.

Some are saying that Own The Podium was given the wrong name, that it was too cocky and might have provoked other competitors to step up their games - while placing unrealistic expectations and additional pressures on our own athletes.

The Canadian Olympic Committee also looked at the number of gold medals versus the number of crashes and DNFs and suggested that the Canadian athletes were taking an all-or-nothing approach to competitions, giving up the chance to win silver and bronze for an even slimmer chance of winning gold. That was evident in men's ski cross when Chris Del Bosco crashed while trying to upgrade an almost guaranteed bronze medal for a silver or gold.

While you can't deny that Own The Podium is working - anyone who follows the World Cup circuit over the years can see the results - I will acknowledge that the name "Own The Podium" may have struck the wrong timbre, that it was un-Canadian in some way. We're supposed to be the nice guys on the global stage, good sports as well as good sportsmen.

Winning was never what it was supposed to be about (although winning so many gold medals was certainly enjoyable). We could learn a lot from other small countries represented in the Games that were happy merely to participate and go for personal bests. We could learn from The Snow Leopard, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, who earned $9,000 for charity by beating three skiers in the men's slalom.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that winning isn't everything when you live in the shadow of the U.S., the country that gave us Vince Lombardi and Yogi Berra, and that has won so many Olympic medals.

But Canada has always been different. This is the country of Terry Fox and Rick Hansen after all, and effort counts. Our Olympians are amazing just because they can compete at the level they do and can hold their own against the best in the world. They are inspiring because of their struggles to get there, not always (or often) because they won or placed.

Somehow, in the run-up to 2010, we forgot just how amazing it is for an athlete to qualify for the Winter Olympics in the first place. The fact that we had so many realistic contenders this time around is proof that Own The Podium is working.

When it comes to effort the Canadian team never disappointed, even if the results were sometimes disappointing.

I'm proud that we've stood by our athletes at a time when the Russian government is publicly criticizing its team, when the Austrian's are pulling their hair out after winning just four medals, all by women, after winning 14 of 30 alpine ski medals in 2006.

That said, I believe our work has just started.

That's why I'm looking for Loonies. I'm going to tape them to a letter to Gary Lunn, our federal minister of sport, and ask him to put it towards the Own The Podium to fully fund the program through the 2014 Games and beyond.

To date the federal government has only guaranteed funding of $11 million a year to Own The Podium, a third of the $33 million that OTP has requested. To put it into perspective, that $33 million represents about $1 for every man, woman and child in Canada. The $3 I'm trying to find right now is for myself, my wife and my daughter.

Or maybe I'll send a check for $12 and be done with it for the next four years.

It's a small price to pay.

While we didn't "own the podium" our performance was nothing to be ashamed of. I believe that if any athlete has a dream to compete in the Olympics and is willing to make the sacrifices to get there, then we should support them.

After all, our goal as a nation is to be healthier and more active. Own The Podium is really all about getting people to turn off their computers and televisions and go outside. It's to inspire all the qualities that come with taking part in sport, like leadership, self-reliance, discipline and sportsmanship. Athletes, it's been proven, do better in school and better in life.

And when our very best athletes stand on our shoulders to reach the top of that podium - they pull us up after them.

I think that's worth a dollar a year.

 

Inside the Medals

In the last four days of the Olympics the Canadian Team earned seven gold medals, doubling its gold tally from the previous 12 days. With seven silver and five bronze medals that last medal haul brought Canada's total to 26, a record for a Winter Games. The previous record was 24 from the 2006 Games in Torino.

The Canadians also came close in many events.

In mogul skiing Canada earned two medals, Jennifer Heil's silver and Alexandre Bilodeau's gold, but three other athletes finished in the top five - Chloe Dufour-Lapointe was fifth on the women's side and Vincent Marquis and Pierre-Alexandre Rousseau were fourth and fifth for the men.

The alpine ski team failed to win a medal for the fourth consecutive Winter Games, but came close several times. Erik Guay was fifth in both the downhill and super G, while Whistler's Britt Janyk was sixth in the downhill.

We also failed to win a cross-country medal this time around after the women's team netted two medals in 2006. But Canada placed three in the top 10 in the men's 30 km pursuit, while Devon Kershaw placed fifth in the men's 50 km classic, just 1.6 seconds off the podium.

Unfortunately being close doesn't count in the medal tally.

Our snowboard team and freestyle team each contributed three medals, our sliders contributed four, our figure skaters two, curlers two and hockey teams two. There were no medals from ski jumping, biathlon, cross country or nordic combined.

Our speed skating team entered the Games with the goal of winning nine medals, one more than their tally in Torino, and finished with exactly nine medals.

 

The Female Factor - Of Canada's 26 medals, 14.5 were contributed by women (with the 0.5 going to ice dancer Tessa Virtue)

The Quebec Factor - Leaving teams aside, Quebec athletes were a big factor in these Games, with seven medals in individual events. Quebecers were also members of 10 teams that won medals.

Multiple Medals - Speed skater Kristina Groves was the only Canadian to win more than one medal in individual events (silver in the ladies' 1,500 metre and bronze in the ladies' 3,000-metre. Marianne St-Gelais won a silver in the 500 metre short track event and a silver in the ladies 3,000 metre short track relay. Her boyfriend, Charles Hamelin won the 500 metre short track event and was part of the winning 5,000 metre relay team.

 

Medals by the numbers

 

By Total Medals

1. United States of America - 37 - 9 - 15 - 13

2. Germany - 30 - 10 - 13 - 7

3. Canada - 26 - 14 - 7 - 5

4. Norway - 23 - 9 - 8 - 6

5. Austria - 16 - 4 - 6 - 6

6. Russian Federation - 15 - 3 - 5 - 7

7. South Korea - 14 - 6 - 6 - 2

8. China - 11 - 5 - 2 - 4

8. Sweden - 11 - 5 - 2 - 4

8. France 11 - 2 - 3 - 6

 

By Gold Medals

1. Canada - 14

2. Germany - 10

3. United States - 9

3. Norway - 9

5. South Korea - 6

6. China - 5

6. Sweden - 5

8. Austria - 4

8. Netherlands - 4

10. Russian Federation - 3

 

Total Medals by Population (top 10 only)

1. Norway - 1 per 202,632

2. Austria - 1 per 513,142

3. Sweden - 1 per 823,604

4. Canada - 1 per 1,286,969

5. Germany - 1 per 2,744,325

6. South Korea - 1 per 3,250,640

7. France - 1 per 5,823,435

8. U.S. - 1 per 8,303,030

9. Russia - 1 per 9,336,083

10. China - 1 per 121,692,088

 

Total Medals by GDP (top 10 only, U.S. dollars)

1. Norway - 1 per $16.043 Billion

2. Austria - 1 per $23,400B

3. Sweden - 1 per $36.155B

4. Canada - 1 per $50.730B

5. South Korea - 1 per $62.879B

6. Russia Federation 1 per $83.667B

7. Germany - 1 per $107.833B

8. France - 1 per $239,545B

9. United States - 1 per $385.676B

10. China - 1 per $432,545B

 

• Based on the CIA Factbook, July 2009 numbers

 

Why are the Americans so good?

February 17 was a telling day in the Olympics. Just five days in, the U.S. team raised its medal haul to 14 with six medals - including three double podiums. Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso were first and second in the downhill, Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick were first and third in the men's 1,000 metre speed skating, and Shaun White and Scott Lago were first and third in men's halfpipe. The Canadians won just one medal on the same day with Marianne St-Gelais picking up a silver in the women's 500 metre short track event.

By all accounts the Americans were just warming up with contenders in alpine, ski cross, speed skating, nordic combined, bobsleigh, hockey... the list is long. In the end the U.S. team walked away with 37 medals, the most by any nation at an Olympic Winter Games.

Which begs the question of why the team is so strong in so many events and Canada is so far falling short of its expectation to place first among nations in the medal tally. After all, Canada prepared for these Games, investing over $110 million in additional funding to our winter sports organizations to try to give our athletes an edge. By all accounts it was working with Canadians winning more world championship titles than other countries in 2009.

But the Olympics are always a little different, removed from the rhythm of the World Cup circuit. Media is more intense, crowds are bigger, the pressure is higher and athletes seem to come out of nowhere to win medals.

There are a few reasons why the U.S. is so strong this year.

Population - The U.S. has almost10 times as many people as Canada and is the third most populated country in the world behind China and India. As a result they have a far bigger pool of athletes in sports from a young age and more intense competition to move up the ranks. It also means that there is more opportunity to compete - after all, there are more ski resorts in Colorado than in all of Western Canada.

Culture - Americans are sports-mad and even mid-sized cities seem more than able to support major league franchises. They are also intensely competitive, broadcasting school sports like basketball and football on television, as well as at the college level. College sports are particularly competitive as most schools can offer athletes full scholarships worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. The NCAA also mandates that schools spend equally on women's athletics.

Financial Resources - Athletes make more money in the U.S. than any other country. A top 10 list of the top-earning Winter Olympic athletes in Forbes included eight American athletes including Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn. America also remains an economic and industrial super power, and there is more sponsorship money available as a result. For example, the U.S. Ski Team, which earned a record eight medals in Whistler, has a $40 million training facility in Utah. Shaun White spent an estimated half a million dollars building his own backcountry halfpipe to train in. In comparison, funding is a huge issue for many Canadian athletes and many national sport organizations entered the 2010 Games underfunded or still in search of a headline sponsor.

Self Contained - In snowboarding the U.S. has a competitive circuit that is actually bigger than the World Cup circuit, including U.S. Grand Prix events, the Dew Tour, the U.S. Open and the ESPN X Games. Competitors like Shaun White generally only show up at World Cup events when they need to earn the minimum number of FIS points to qualify for an Olympics, then disappear for the next four years or so.

The 2002 Games - The U.S. has a complete set of Winter Olympic facilities on both coasts; Lake Placid in New York and surrounding Salt Lake City in Utah, not to mention high performance facilities in dozens of other locations. Until 2010 most Canadian athletes were limited to Canada Olympic Park in Calgary for some events, a facility that is not ideal for sports like ski jumping because of the wind and variable snowfall.

Olympics also create future Olympians, inspiring more young athletes to get into sports. Right about now the athletes that were at the development level in 2002 are finally peaking at the international level.

Like Canada, the U.S. invested significantly on sports in the build-up to the 2002 Games, and are continuing to reap the benefits of all that work. They have a solid network of coaches, a development and team selection system that rewards performance, established sponsors and events - like the World Cup alpine races at Aspen and Beaver Creek - and the support of the business community and public.

Pressure - While Canadian athletes do what they can to rise above the pressure and have had more resources like sports psychologists to help them cope there was still a heavy weight bearing down on all of our athletes before the 2010 Games. There was pressure in 1988 as well, but the Winter Games were not nearly as big of a deal back then and the U.S.S.R. was a powerhouse that was expected to contend for most of the medals. There was also no Own The Podium program before 1988 to invest in the athletes, increasing their chances while also increasing our expectations.

As a result of Own The Podium, Canadian athletes have also been incredible on the World Cup circuit and especially at World Championships in 2009 where they won more medals than any other nation. Instead of underdogs our athletes headed into these Games as favourites, which no doubt also increased the pressure on the individual athletes.

Luck? - While it takes a nation to produce Olympians it eventually comes down to individual athletes to perform on a given day. Canada has had some bad luck with injuries to a few top alpine prospects like John Kucera. A few past medalists competed who have been injured in recent years, such as Jennifer Heil, Jeremy Wotherspoon and Chandra Crawford, and were not at the top of their game heading into 2010.

Focus - In the 2006 Olympic Winter Games the Canadian team won 24 medals in total, with eighth medals coming from speed skating events. For 2010 we tried to be competitive in more events, with the result that funding was split in more directions. So while $117 million might seem like a lot of money, keep in mind that it was spent over five years and divided between more than a dozen different sports.

The U.S. is big enough to be competitive in more events than Canada, while the amount of sponsorship available for certain sports like snowboarding and alpine skiing made it possible to put more money into sports like nordic combined, where the U.S. earned three medals in 2010. The reality is that Canada cannot afford to fund all sports and athletes equally, and so we've made a practice of putting more money where we believe we have the greatest chance to earn medals.

 

 




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