There was a puzzling sight and sound as the Winter Games began. You'd swear that through the mist enveloping Vancouver you could see homegirl Cindy Lou Who sporting a tattoo. And over the refrain of O Canada, you were positive that you could hear another Who taunt foes with "boo-hoo!"
What happened to innocent Canada? Is it not Whoville anymore? Our modest neighbors to the north, once content to feed our cat and pick up our mail while we Americans traveled the globe to kick Olympic ass, have started to sound a lot like us—as in U.S. "While we will always be willing to hold open a car door for a guest," says J.D. Miller, a Montreal businessman who has helped fund Canadian Olympians, "I have an inclination as to which country will be looking in the rearview mirror come February 28th."
Oh, so it's like that, eh? First, it was the Canadian currency that was outperforming ours, and now the nation with a health care system wants to shove our stripes where the stars don't shine. "We have come to this era where we can say we're proud," says Team Canada's chef de mission and former speedskater Nathalie Lambert, "and we want to be Number 1."
The sound of bravado and the perception of Canada is an awkward fit. To date, William Shatner's role as the Priceline negotiator is about the only tough-guy act to come out of Canada. So what's with Canada's craving for a No. 1 foam finger? This is a country seeking to establish an identity that goes beyond nice. During the opening ceremonies Canadian poet Shane Koyczan delivered an encomium to his homeland titled We Are More, which included this passage:
And some say what defines us
Is something as simple as "please" and "thank you"
And as for "you're welcome," well, we say that, too
But we are more than genteel or civilized
We are an idea in the process of being realized?
Apparently, part of the country's grand evolution is to make the world eat its gold dust. Canada's Own the Podium scheme, launched in 2005, has poured millions into athlete development to ensure that the country with the maple leaf on its flag wins more than consolation bouquets. The OTP is also insurance against humiliation; in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics and during the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, Canada did not win one gold medal. With Vancouver as its showcase, Canada wants to prove itself as an Olympic power on par with, say, the U.S. So think of Canada as the new China or the old U.S.S.R.—without, of course, the Communist high jinks.
Obviously, losing to China is not so unimaginable. But fear the leaf? The Canadian Olympic Committee has told the world to be afraid, be very afraid. Still, it's unclear if Canada's goodness can coexist with a killer instinct. Many foreign athletes complained that Canada iced them from practicing at Olympic venues such as the luge course, where a Georgian slider died on a training run hours before the opening ceremonies. Former U.S. speedskater Joey Cheek, the most wholesome guy on ice, called the gamesmanship during the run-up to Vancouver "kind of a d--- move." Other issues have been raised in the first week of the Olympics too: If the Canadians dominate speedskating, will their space-age bodysuits be perceived as providing an unfair advantage? Was the 18--0 record rout the Canadian women's hockey team put on Slovakia last Saturday night a show of might or an illumination of the talent gap? Nothing breeds ambivalence in Canada like winning and losing. In a column that ran in The Toronto Star, there was a warning to Canadians who celebrate chest-puffing over a warm heart: "It's also possible that the worst in us will get the best of us."
Others on the Canadian side believe just the opposite. "Canadians remain the nice guy next door—just one that has become more competitive," Miller says. He stands as one reason for the uptick in podium optimism. Benefactors like Miller may be the difference between Canada and the U.S. and why this country could slip behind its border buddies. For years the U.S. Olympic Committee has relied on mom-and-pop donors and big corporations for funding. But what America needs now, coming out of the Great Recession, are major league philanthropists if the Olympic movement is to remain a source of national pride and not simply another event in our big-tent sports culture. We have patrons for other amateur sports—like the tycoons who spend fortunes covering the salaries of college coaches. We call them boosters. We know them because names like T. Boone Pickens are plastered across campus buildings.
In Canada amateur support is less of a peacock endeavor. Miller is part of B2ten—25 business leaders and wealthy Canadians who provide extra funding to Team Canada without wanting anything in return. It's about altruism, not ego. It's about aiding, not owning. That's very Canadian, eh? If this system works, if Canada can win without losing its soul, the nation may yet live up to the standard set by the most famous of its Mounties: Dudley Do-Right.
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The Nation of Nice wants to be feared as an Olympic power and has a strategy worth imitating, if it doesn't cost Canada its soul.