Five-ring Circus

Might It Possibly Be OK If We Kick Some Ass?

Why the world finds Canada’s quest for Olympic gold strange and adorable.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Gold medal-winning moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau of Canada 

With the Winter Olympics opening this past weekend in Vancouver, the great big story from the Great White North is that Canada is really, truly, finally done with being Mr. Nice Guy/Gal/Person of Niceness. Having failed to score a hometown gold medal in either the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal or the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada unloosed a $118 million project called “Own the Podium.” In addition to offering gold medal winners $20,000 apiece, Canada has devoted millions to win a little Olympic bling. This has generated great astonishment around the world as reporters, accustomed to images of Canada as the world’s great frost-encrusted doormat, have been forced to contend with the newly aggressive Canuck mindset. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, eh?

Someday, someone is going to explain to me why it is that journalists so frequently speak about Canadians as though we are all about 2 feet tall and 7 years old. See, for instance, this exceedingly strange New York Times piece about how those tiny little Canadians are building a “giant laser” or some such thing, in order to bring home more Olympic medals than ever before. Look! Look at all those funny little Canadians in their funny little hats, trying to be good at sports! Look at them spending their whole allowance on a top-secret program to create a human slingshot for speed skaters and “super-low-friction bases for snowboards and [to find out] whether curling brooms really melt the ice.” The Seattle Times describes this effort as “Canada’s non-nuclear Manhattan Project.”

It was bad enough when they were calling us “un-Canadian” and “inhospitable” just for wanting to win medals. It got uglier last Friday when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was tragically killed in a practice run. The Canadians’ decision to limit outsiders’ use of Olympic facilities before the Games began—a maneuver that every other host country pulls—got spun as “an unfortunate nationalistic impulse” that put patriotism ahead of safety. The subtext: When Canadians care about winning just as much as the rest of the world, can there be any more warmth and goodness left in the universe?

Ink has also been spilled—not a lot, mind you—on the alleged rivalry between the United States and Canada; at least 87 percent of which is actually a rivalry between Stephen Colbert and Canada. Canadians tend to think Americans are loud and boorish. Canadians are generally dismissed by Americans as boring and staggeringly polite and nice. With the exception of hockey, which the New York Times describes as “the escape valve that makes Canadian niceness possible,” Canadians are invariably painted as hopelessly childlike and sweet. Until they become evil.

Colbert has said that “Own the Podium” seems a little more strident than the previous Canadian slogan: “Pardon, would it trouble you if we won a medal or two? It would? OK. Never mind.” Of course, this effort to caricature Canadians has been aided most of all by Canadians. You know you’re suffering an international feistiness deficit when your prime minister begs his fellow citizens to show the world a little more testosterone. “We will ask the world to forgive us this time,” declared Stephen Harper in an effort to rouse Canadians into showy displays of patriotism, “this uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism and pride, our pride of being part of a country that is strong, confident and stands tall among the nations.”

What’s strange about all this deep Freudian analysis is that Canada has done pretty darn well on the hardware front in recent years. It jumped from 13 medals in 1994 to 24 at Turin in 2006. Canada ranks seventh overall in winter medal wins. Not bad for a country of 33 million people where per capita spending on Olympians has historically been a fraction of what some other countries spend. Is it possible that Canada has been doing just fine at the Winter Olympics but nobody ever bothered to notice?

Even odder is the relentless media focus on the inexplicable nature of Canada’s quest for medals—as though every host nation doesn’t do the same exact thing. China had Project 119 for the Beijing Olympics, and nobody accused the Chinese of trying to win because they lacked self-esteem. UK Sports, too, has launched Mission 2012 to kick butt in two years at the London Games. Canada deciding to shovel a bit of green toward its quest for gold is only bizarre to the extent one expects Canada to be uniquely—and as a matter of immutable national character—desirous of losing.

And that seems to be the real story here: Canada’s effort to overcome an alleged national tendency to choke at the podium. The Boston Globe makes this point explicitly when it writes that “for decades, our northern neighbors have looked over their shoulders when stepping onto the Olympic medal stand. Do we really belong up here, they wonder? Isn’t there a scoring error? Didn’t someone file a protest?” It’s not just that Canada isn’t very competitive. According to this narrative, we actually live to fail. We’re somewhere around the 26th greatest country on earth and that’s just fine.

It has always seemed to me that sweeping efforts to identify a Canadian national character are pointless. It’s a vast country built on compromises between French and English, Canadians and the British. The nation differs so fundamentally from east coast to west that, Olympics notwithstanding, it’s hard to know what a Newfoundlander and a British Columbian might find to talk about. But as a Canadian, I would say that if we tend not to crow about our achievements, it’s not because we don’t care to achieve—it’s because we don’t much care to crow. There’s a difference.

This fundamental difference between Canadians and Americans could be summed up in a single medal ceremony. On Monday, moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau was awarded the gold medal Canada had been waiting for, and the crowd was wild with transcendent joy. But as the cameras panned the audience, and their lips moved with the words of “O Canada,” it became clear that the Quebecer Bilodeau was mouthing bits of the French version. The fact that his lips were making different shapes than most of the rest of the crowd made the moment utterly wrong for NBC. But also perfectly Canadian.

I’ve rooted breathlessly for Canada in the Olympics my whole life. So does my little brother who lives in Australia. We just do it quietly. If Canada tops the medal table this year, our heads will blow off. Canadians have always been insanely proud of their Olympic athletes and passionate about winning. It’s just that, by and large, crushing world domination isn’t really our thing. Except in hockey. If the media are right about anything, it’s that we care more about hockey than anything else. We always have, and we always will. If that’s the big international scoop here, it’s a little late.

In other words, it’s not that Canadians have changed, it’s that the story the world wants to tell about us these next two weeks has changed. We aren’t in fact hapless and adorable. And here’s a final guess: If Canada ever does decide to go for sweeping global domination someday, we won’t do it by showing the world that we are the fastest lugers or the spinniest skaters. Dominance in cold-weather sports would only make us look even more, well … Canadian. Nope, I promise you this: If we ever opt to really let fly and reveal our true, complicated, ass-kicking, grown-up Canadian selves to the world, it’ll be in some completely unexpected, un-snow-related way.

Like space travel.

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