Too Polite To Win? Canadian Olympic Athletes Vow To 'Own The Podium'

In sports, world on December 1, 2009 at 7:12 am

Canadians, it’s often been noted, are polite, quiet, non-confrontational and downright meek — compared to Americans. We subscribe, (without calling it that) to the “tall poppy syndrome”, shared with Australians, Japanese and Scandinavians: if you boast, thump your chest, tell people how great you are, you’re considered a declasse boor. You’ll quickly be put in your place, your head chopped off for daring to peek high above the rest.

Now, in the final few weeks before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Canadians are talking trash. Their motto? Own the Podium.

Such in-your-face-ness is really a huge cultural shift in a nation that treasures modesty and humility in its citizens. In a year 2000 poll, 14 percent of Canadians said they enjoyed demonstrating their superiority to foreigners (yeah, national health care! great beer! kids who can ice skate at 2!). In contrast, 31 percent of Americans said so. Bloody Yanks.

Reports The Wall Street Journal:

Canadians also tend to feel awkward about patriotism. “We mumble our national anthem here, and nobody puts their hand on their heart,” Mr. Adams says. The bestselling author doesn’t doubt that Olympic success could pull the country together, particularly after past slights. He remembers vividly how, during a 1992 World Series game between the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays, a U.S. Marine in Atlanta inadvertently flew the Canadian flag upside down during pregame ceremonies. “We never get any respect,” says Mr. Adams.

In recent weeks, after some American athletes complained about gaining only limited training time on Vancouver’s venues, many in Canada expected their leaders to apologize, open wide the gates and discard the home-field advantage that every other host country has exploited. But in a reaction that seemingly energized the nation, Canadian media commentators and Olympic organizers dismissed the Americans as a bunch of whiners. “People just stood up, said we did nothing wrong and made fun of the Americans,” says Mr. Gauthier, the ski coach. “I was so proud to see that.”

But such brashness wins mixed reviews.

Publicly announcing such a goal strikes some in Canada as impolite and others as inhospitable. “It sounds like we’re welcoming the countries of the world to our doorstep so that we can trounce them,” says Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian now a University of Toronto dean. The newfound jingoism strikes many here as just too, well, American. “Own the Podium is obnoxious and un-Canadian,” says Louise Fox, a Canadian etiquette expert. “Up here we don’t toot our own horn like that.”

To many athletes, however, the boldness of the claim is thrilling. “As a Canadian I’m happy to see Canada becoming aggressive like America,” says former hockey coach Barry Melrose, now an ESPN announcer. “If you’re afraid to talk about winning, you’ll never win.”

  1. I despise the Olympics, in part for this reason. When selling the game to the soon-to-be overburdened taxpayers, it’s always ‘the pure spirit’ and the collegiality of athleticism.

    Horseradish…shameless unadulterated codswallop.
    The Olympics make nations do crazy things, not the least of which is take on massive amounts of debt. The old Eastern Bloc countries turned doping into a whole new pharmacological field of study; China falsifies birthdates to get young athletes into contention sooner. And poor Canada, ever the sap in these things, blithely goes on pretending there’s nothing wrong and it’s all about ‘the spirit’.

    I don’t blame Canadians for getting a bit ‘uppity’…I mean, we’ve championed the spirit of these events for sooooo long while others cheated, bribed or otherwise used their vast internal security apparatus to make sure they win. We don’t…it’s just not us. So I think (hope) this is a passing thing.

  2. Thanks for weighing in. I have really mixed feelings about trash talk; while it’s great if the Canadian athletes are finally getting better funding and support, how silly will they look if they don’t scoop up a pile ‘o medals?

    Any Canadian of a certain age will recall the insane debt left over from the Montreal Olympics…

    • Yes, well I certainly qualify for the ‘certain’ age designation.
      But I suppose Canada will look no sillier for not scooping up medals than we have every other time. My Olympic memories are mostly cultural and very few relate to actual sporting achievement. I look back at the outfits for the Canadian Olympic team in Calgary (a fashion crime truly worthy of The Hague), or the no-surprise Ben Johnson crisis, and of course the financial morasse that was the Montreal Games. I was overjoyed at Toronto not getting the games simply because the major backers (who shall here remain nameless, yet no less shameless) were all hungry for taxpayers to build a big stadium to park their NFL franchise once everyone had gone home.

      The original spirit of the games was to celebrate the end of war, not initiate a whole new kind of conflict. And in the end, to rack up so much sporting success all in one go would feel distinctly un-Canadian. The little unlooked for victories against massive odds seem to suit us best…think Greg Joy, high jumper and silver medalist in ’76. He didn’t need gold because his effort was gold.

  3. A few years ago Molson ran a television commerical appealing to put-upon Canadians tired of explaining (presumably to cluessless Americans) that they don’t know, “Jimmy, Sally or Susy from Canada, although I’m sure they’re really, really nice.”

    I read an AP story at the time which said the spot, which ends with a stirring call to national pride, inspired some of those feelings among Canadians. Most Americans, the story said, hadn’t noticed.

    Here’s the commercial on YouTube:


  4. I know about about that commercial, and I get why it hit home. Canadians can indeed be gentler in style or behavior, but we’re not weak, and the two get irritatingly conflated. Anyone who’s played hockey against a Canadian — or really pissed one of us off — won’t make that mistake again.

  5. I’m not sure it’s a sign of national modesty so much as a reflection of our priorities when measuring our success. The commercial spot was very well done, but seemed to evaluate Canadian-ness based upon the metrics of others (USA), which at the end of the day I don’t think many Canadians care about. Quiet, competent and (small c) conservative/cautious just about sums it up. When you know you’re great, or are at least confident that you’re doing ok by your own standards, there’s no need to care about what others think. And this is why the Olympics can have a negative effect; the whole notion of winners and loser, and the need to justify the results without losing face. A Yahtzee tournament would accomplish about as much.

  6. caradoc, I appreciate your insights here…

    I often joke, seriously, that Canadians are most easily defined by words that start with co — competent, conflict-averse, cooperative, community oriented, communally focused. I completely agree that it’s not “Canadian” in any widely respected national sense — i.e. a shared cultural value — to yell boo-yah at people you’re competing against. It serves no purpose and makes you look like a fool if you lose. Action, not words.

    Adapting to American self-promotion, let alone elbows-out New York in a recession, will knock the quiet-polite stuffing out of any Canadian, though. When you’re competing against people playing a totally different style of game, you do have to skate harder and faster if you hope to survive, let alone win!

    • I deal with Americans often and have no difficulty…they often wonder why we seem so passive and I often wonder why they need to be so assertive. I edit a small, highly specific financial periodical and despite the high survival rate of Canadian entities after such a horrendous year, they rarely want to blow their own horn…many firms don’t even want to publish good results because the chest-thumping isn’t what it’s all about.

      Post script: Molson is now owned by Coors, so in reference to that commercial (‘I am Canadian’), exactly who is Canadian now?

  7. caradoc, I’ve now lived in the U.S. 20 years and am still (why?) stunned at the exhausting level of assertiveness people feel compelled to display — in every situation, from driving on the shoulder to beat you to the next exit to telling you, as one wealthy guy did at Thanksgiving last week, “I make a lot of money” — (excuse me?)

    I think Canadians are/can be much more passive because: 1) there’s a social safety net! everyone has health care and doesn’t have to poke someone in the eye to get and keep a job; i.e. a job with health benefits because without it you are flat broke from buying it on the open market. We were quoted — yes — $1440 for the two of us in our family, healthy non-smokers if we were to go out this week and buy it on our own. 2) the “nanny state” actually gives you something in return for all those taxes ($5,500 a year for U of T versus $20,000 for even a lousy NYS school) 3) smaller population 4) lower expectations.

    In the U.S. you can, and do, fall so far so fast from any sort of prosperity your Canadian head would spin Linda Blair-ishly at the horror of it. You get tough and greedy and sharp-elbowed because you have to. So attractive.

  8. Oh, that $1440 is per MONTH, not year. Pre-tax income.

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