The road to the Games should be celebrated first 

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO  BY DAN FALLOON
  • File Photo By Dan Falloon

In the excitement of the Winter Olympics and so many compelling Canadian stories, it's easy to forget that the Games themselves are in a bit of a crisis.

The fact that the NHL wouldn't release its players is part of the story — it's a huge loss of prestige for one of the Winter Games' crowning events and a wider statement about how important the Olympics are to the world's largest professional league. (Not very.)

Russia's doping scandal, and the fact that its clean athletes are competing as "Olympic Athletes from Russia" is another part of the problem. This wasn't a case of a few athletes cheating to get ahead; it was institutionalized cheating from the very top.

Winning medals is now more about whipping up nationalist sentiment than celebrating human achievement. Russia didn't cheat to get athletes onto cereal boxes, but to show the world its cultural superiority, and to prove to the world that they're still a force to be reckoned with. The Winter Games were their Cold War, not a friendly competition.

It's not just a Russian thing. Developed countries like Canada are spending millions of dollars on athletes in a bid to be the best, further marginalizing small and developing countries in the process.

Then there's the IOC itself, an organization that is only starting to emerge from the shadows of a bribery scandal to find out that its brand is tarnished in other ways.

The high cost of hosting the 2004 Summer Games is part of the reason why Greece is reeling under unsustainable debt, while Brazil could scarcely afford the estimated $13-billion price tag to host the Games in 2016. London's $30-billion and Sochi's $52-billion were also absurdly wasteful and impossible to justify.

The public's appetite for hosting the Games is also dwindling with a growing number of populist movements scuttling bids around the world — something that has put the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in a position where it may allow bids to be shared between cities, regions and even countries to keep the costs down. For example, the bid being floated for Calgary could see the ski-jumping events held in Whistler.

While that seems like a smart idea, the IOC is also making strange decisions like getting rid of wrestling — one of the original Olympic events as well as one of the few sports where poor nations can compete on equal footing. Meanwhile, we still have equestrian, pool sports that you need actual pools to compete in, plus golf, gymnastics, and various other events that favour the wealthy.

And there's nothing more elite than the Winter Games — how many hockey rinks, curling clubs and speed-skating ovals do you imagine there are in Africa or South America?

This isn't to take away from anyone's enjoyment of what's happening in PyeongChang. We should be proud of our athletes. There are some incredible stories to follow — like Whistler's own Marielle Thompson defending her ski cross title despite tearing two ligaments back in October; Mark McMorris coming back from last year's near-fatal backcountry crash to take another shot at gold in snowboarding; Whistler's Mercedes Nicoll is competing in women's halfpipe again after losing almost two competitive seasons to a concussion.

I'm excited to watch now 42-year-old Jasey Jay Anderson compete in his sixth Olympics, to see our incredible freestyle team in action, to find out if Alex Harvey can win Canada's first men's cross-country medal, to watch alpine skier Manuel Osborne-Paradis.

What I won't do is fall into the trap of believing that we're somehow a better country or better people because our athletes score lots of goals in hockey or are good at finding the button in curling. No amount of pride wipes away our ongoing issues with First Nations or child poverty.

We should also celebrate the process over the results — the years of dedication on the part of athletes, training day after day to be the best they can be. We should also cheer on the underdogs and any athlete who pushed the boundaries, whatever uniform they're wearing.

Taking things down a notch won't be easy for us.

Canadians take those international "livability" polls incredibly seriously, our hackles go up if someone suggests that our health care system isn't perfect, and we even tend to take our international trade disputes personally. After a few poor Olympic showings and a successful bid to host our own Winter Games in 2010, we funded an organization called "Own the Podium" to guarantee results — in the process, only funding sports and athletes where we have a shot at winning medals. So much for Participaction.

There's something un-Canadian about winning at all costs while thumping our plaid and flannel-covered chests. I'd rather come home empty handed than lose whatever that feeling is.

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