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For sale: podium

Canada has abandoned its claim of ownership, but don't blame our gritty athletes

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VANCOUVER -- Gotta admit, it's midway through the 2010 Vancouver Games and it looks from a Canadian perspective like a bad Ashton Kutcher movie: Dude, where's my Olympics?

Or maybe that was a good Ashton Kutcher movie, if you know what we mean.

Regardless, let's not ignore the beaver in the living room. These were literally billed as Canada's Games, and they are unfolding against the backdrop of a $111-million Own the Podium Program, which officials hoped would have the host nation battling for world Olympic supremacy.

Yet, as of Saturday night, Canada has been on the podium eight times, eating the fumes of the Americans, who have so far exceeded their wildest expectations with 23 medals. Meanwhile, the Germans (also considered a podium leader contender) have accounted for 14 medals, and Norway 11.

That leaves Canada fourth, which at any Olympics is considered the bridesmaid's curse.

Naturally, the worry warts are beginning to show; many whom couldn't pick most Canadian medal winners to date out of a police lineup before the flame was lit. But, hey, that's the down side of hefty expectations. Canadians were under the impression that their athletes -- whether they know of them or even their sports -- were primed to win the most medals. So they look at the standings and go, "Wait. Are we trailing Norway? Seriously?"

Fair enough. And undoubtedly, the Americans' mining of medals might only add insult to angst. After all, the Yankees captured 25 medals four years ago in Turin, good enough for second overall. They'll probably be flying past that total by next Tuesday, zoning in on the 34 medals the U.S. won at home in Salt Lake in 2002.

Which brings us back to Canada. Home.

One of the most intriguing questions entering Vancouver was just how Canada would handle the pressure of expectations, which were unlike any other Games in this nation's history. And not just how the athletes would handle the expectations, but Canadians themselves.

After all, we don't just tend to be unassuming on the world stage, Canadians generally bristle at any show of boastful pride from others. We're looking at you, Uncle Sam.

Of course, it's more accurate to say on Day 9 of the 2010 Games we're looking at America's backside. So is the rest of the world.

And good on the Yanks. Their athletes have been full value for their medals. All the usual suspects -- Shani Davis (speedskating), Lindsey Vonn (skiing), Bode Miller (skiing), Shaun White (snowboarding) -- to name just a few -- have produced podium performances under pressure, which is the mark of a true champion.

The Canadians have already had their moments, too -- none better than Russell's engaging Jon Montgomery, last seen drinking most of an entire pitcher of beer on the streets of Whistler after winning gold late Friday night.

What gives pause, however, is the polar opposite result for Canada's Melissa Hollingsworth, who after a fifth-place finish in women's skeleton tearfully told CTV she felt like she let "the entire country down." That's unfortunate.

So maybe some of Canada's now well-funded athletes can buckle under the weight of expectations. It happens in every sport, in every country, at every Games. Some, like Montgomery, seize the day. Some, like Hollingsworth, can make the slightest of errors at the worst possible time and not get a second chance.

Just remember, though, these Games are only half over. Many sports Canadians are projected to medal in have yet to begin. And for the record, a lot of those winners will also be previously unknown to the vast majority of citizens of their own country.

Still, it's already clear this new-found Olympic patriotism is going to be tested in the next few days, especially if Canada doesn't even match the 24 medals won in Turin.

So either it's real, and Canadians will embrace their athletes and these Games win or lose -- and, yes, still have the right to question amplified goals and funding. Or they will turn on their own athletes for failing to live up to unprecedented yet realistic expectations on home soil.

Personally speaking, if the latter comes to pass, then we never probably really cared about them at all.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2010 A27

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