Great expectations for these Games

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Sun Media, Friday, February 12, 2010

We often think of Canada, to paraphrase Churchill, as a modest country with much to be modest about. Especially when hosting the Olympics.

Not this time. Not in these Olympics. After hosting the world twice in Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1998, and being the only host country never to win gold at its own Games, we have invited the world to Vancouver so we can kick ass.

It seems somehow inhospitable and very un-Canadian, as the New York Times noted Wednesday in a front-page story on Canadaís $110-million Own the Podium program. CEO Roger Jackson told the Times: ďThirty medals or more is what weíre hoping for this time. I think we can get those.Ē

Well, in the great game of managing expectations, this isnít exactly how itís done. Thereís an element of trash talk, as well as tempting the gods of sport. On the morning of the Super Bowl, the same newspaper carried a headline suggesting Peyton Manning was the greatest quarterback of all time. Bad karma.

Not only has the Canadian media bought into the Own the Podium storyline, itís torquing it up. On CBCís The National the other night, the lead Olympic story wasnít even on how many medals Canada was expected to win over the next two weeks, but how many it might win on the first day.

Maybe itís time to give it a rest. Has anyone considered the possibility that our teams and individual competitors might crack under this kind of pressure?

Consider the menís hockey team. Itís supposed to be our game, but it doesnít mean we own it. The Americans, the Russians, the Czechs, the Swedes and the Finns all put competitive teams on the ice. As the Americans demonstrated against the Soviets at Lake Placid 30 years ago, anything can happen in a sudden-death medal round and sometimes does. Goaltending can be everything in an Olympic tournament ó has anyone noticed that Martin Brodeur has been going down a lot lately? In Ottawa against the Sens two weeks ago, he gave up three goals on something like 14 shots.

Why would we take the Russians for granted when they are led by a guy such as Alex Ovechkin, whose shot is lightning fast as well as incredibly hard? Another Alex, named Kovalev, is only the best stickhandler in the game and the Russians are carrying him as a spare.

Even in womenís hockey, where Canada is the dominant world power, the U.S. puts a very good team on the ice, and once in a while they beat us in sudden death as they did at last yearís world championships. Itís the same in every other discipline, from alpine skiing to long-track and short-track speed skating. Anyone can win on any given day. And anyone can fall.

The problem with Own the Podium, as University of Torontoís Peter Donnelly points out in the current Policy Options, is that ďCanada has stepped into the global sporting arms race.Ē Weíre also creating two classes of athletes, funded and unfunded.

Letís enjoy these Games and the breathtakingly beautiful venues of Vancouver and Whistler. Iím going out today to get a new flat-screen TV. Politics is, well, prorogued for the next two weeks.

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