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Canada Aims to Host and Win at These Olympics

On the road to heaven, there are two signs. One says: Heaven. The other says: Panel Discussion on Heaven.

All the Canadians follow the second sign.

Novelist Margaret Atwood wrote a generation ago that this was the first joke about Canada she ever heard. At long last, it is out of date.

Canadians don't want to discuss Heaven anymore - they want to seize it. And they want to start by winning medals, bunches of them, in that little slice of Heaven known as Vancouver.

The Winter Olympics begin there Feb. 12, and a dominant story line will be the host country, which is eager to win early and often. That's why the USA's neighbor to the north, long esteemed for its ever-so-polite populace, has adopted a most un-Canadian-sounding motto for these Games:

"Own the Podium."

"Canada has an aggressive new attitude," Stephen Colbert said on his Comedy Central TV show. "In contrast to their previous slogan: 'Pardon, would it trouble you if we won a medal or two? It would? OK. Never mind!' "

Rarely in Olympic history has the host nation failed to win even one gold medal. Twice, the too-gracious host has been Canada - at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.

That won't happen again. "Own the Podium" is more than a battle cry. It is a $117 million Canadian (about $110 million U.S.) business plan that provides Canadian athletes in select sports with more coaching, enhanced training and paid travel - plus this ambitious goal: Place first in the total medal count.

This means Canadians want to welcome the world, and conquer it, all in the same 17 days.

They just might.

"We talk about it all the time," says Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "We think to be No. 1 it's going to take 28 to 34 medals. And we're optimistic we have the programs in place to do that."

Germany won 29 medals in the 2006 Games in Torino, followed by the USA with 25. Canada was next with 24, the best Winter Olympics haul in its history. (Up for grabs this time: 258 medals, six more than in 2006.)

A useful though inexact barometer for what we might see in Vancouver are the various 2009 world championships, in which Canada won 29 medals to 28 for the USA and 27 for Germany. (One U.S. medal came in women's ski jumping, which is not an Olympic event.)

"We're looking over our shoulders at you guys," Rudge says, referring to the USA. "We thought it was going to be the Germans. Now we think it's the United States that's the greater threat."

The best way to beat Americans, Rudge figures, is to join them - meaning to swap traditional Canadian diffidence for American-style confidence, if not arrogance.

"Canadians are excited about going to these Games on a mission," Rudge says, "while still retaining the qualities of humility and humbleness. Winning in that context are nice things to aspire to, but marrying them to more of the American attitude of, 'We think we're the best and, damn it, we're going to step up and try to do it.'

"We live beside the elephant. We're a tenth your size. But we'd be fools not to learn from what our neighbors do well."

Pierre Trudeau, Canada's legendary prime minister, once said that living next door to the USA "is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

Canadians know who is president of the United States; many Americans can't identify his counterpart in Canada. In case you're one of them, it's not the late Trudeau. The answer is @Stephen Harper.

'Kids want to win'

The one-sided nature of our best-of-friends relationship grates on Canadians. They know so much about us and we know next to nothing about them, beyond the usual stereotypes of Molson, mullets and maple leafs.

"Canadians are incessantly bombarded with American culture, products and politics," says Katharine Dunn, a former competitive swimmer from Nova Scotia who is a freelance writer in Massachusetts. "How do we fight back? In part by demonizing some 'American' traits like pride, nationalism and self-confidence."

Dunn wrote about the special characteristics of Canadian athletes in 2008 in the Canadian magazine The Walrus: "As Canadians, we value participation, sharing, and welfare for all, but we seem conflicted about excellence, national pride - perhaps even winning itself."

That's why money is only part of Own the Podium. Another key was the audacity to call it that.

"The language of an aggressive approach to victory has not been a part of our lexicon," Rudge says. "For many years, we were satisfied as a country to send people to the Games who had skill. We supported them at a minimum level. We were satisfied that we were being nice people, competing at a high level, and if we got a personal best, that was just great.

"Quite frankly, I don't think it was ever the athletes who had that attitude. No young Olympian in this country ever dreamed of going to the Games and finishing 12th and listening to the German national anthem being played. Kids want to win. We changed things after we were awarded these Games."

Own the Podium is that change. The program, born in 2005, got most of its $117 million from the federal government and corporations. It has doled out that cash for coaching, travel, physiotherapy, even secret research at Canadian colleges looking for technical advantages to save one-hundredth of a second here or a millimeter there in Olympic competitions.

"Own the Podium is a gift," Canadian snowboarder Michael Lambert says. He used to have one coach; now he has three. He used to pay his own way to many competitions; now OTP money pays. He used to ride boards until they were worn; now he always has the latest equipment.

"It's a comprehensive program, well funded," says Mike English, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We expect that from a host nation. But along with that comes greater pressure."

Lambert doesn't agree. He figures the pressure to win on home snow and ice is there anyway and such support gives Canadians a better chance.

"Canada has never been so excited about a home Games," says Patrick Chan, a medal hopeful in men's figure skating. Sometimes stars shy away from the emotional drain of opening ceremonies. Chan will march: "I can't wait for the moment."

'A little bit feistier'

Roger Jackson, CEO of Own the Podium, expects nearly half of Canada's medals will come from speedskating - long track and short - and the bulk of the rest from a mix of snowboard, figure skating, hockey, curling, freestyle skiing, bobsled and skeleton.

He hopes Canada's long-awaited first home gold comes on the Games' first full day, perhaps in the men's downhill (Manuel Osborne-Paradis) or men's 1,500-meter short track (Charles Hamelin) - or surely from Jennifer Heil in women's moguls.

"I hate to put all that pressure on Jennifer - the poor girl is expected to win gold every time she races," Jackson says, comparing the expectations surrounding her to those faced by U.S. Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn.

"We know the Americans are not going to lie down and let us take anything," he says. "Us being a little bit better and a little bit feistier has brought out the best in them as well. They're saying, 'Crikey, let's go after the Canadians now and not take them for granted as much as we used to.' "

Jackson won a gold medal in pairs rowing in the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo. Canada's rowing program of that era had high expectations, he says; OTP's goal is for all teams to aim high.

"There clearly is a stronger national instinct in the United States about winning," Jackson says. "And I suspect part of it plays to the U.S. role on the world stage and part of it relates to a very, very competitive sport environment at the university level and at the professional sport level.

"So the attitude of winning and dominating and being world class is maybe an easier understanding in America. But I think when we put our mind to it in Canada and decide to do something special, whether it's sport or medicine or music or whatever, we don't believe we are inferior in any way."

'A monopoly on virtue'

Nine in 10 Canadians believe they live in the best country in the world, according to a poll last summer for The Globe and Mail and CTV.

So much for the infamous Canadian inferiority complex, which was always more complex than that anyway, often manifesting itself as a superiority complex instead.

"The dual superiority/inferiority complex has been around for my entire life," says Dunn, who noticed it even more when she moved to the USA about 10 years ago. Feelings of insecurity, she says, grow from the daily deluge of U.S. culture past a permeable border: "Our smugness, on the other hand, relates to politics and our view of ourselves as a peaceful, inclusive nation."

Canadians have national health care. They don't have handguns.

"I think we've often felt that we had a bit of a monopoly on virtue," Rudge says. "I don't think that's necessarily true, but it is nice to like where you are."

Timothy Woolstencroft, managing partner of The Strategic Counsel, a market-research firm that conducted the poll, thinks Canada's newfound nationalism has built steadily but quietly over the last 15 years or so. He expects it to burst into orbit at the Games.

"I think we're going to lift the top off of any stadium when Canada does well or wins that first gold medal on Canadian soil," he says. "It's going to be incredibly nationalistic. We've done a fair amount of research on this for the organizers. It's going to be like what we would often see as American nationalism.

"And I think that's going to be surprising to Americans, who tend to see Canadians as very low profile, very diffident - that sense of inferiority, which we don't think is there anymore."

Colbert's viewers, known collectively as Colbert Nation, are a sponsor of U.S. Speedskating. For weeks Colbert has been lobbing insults at Canadians on his Colbert Report, calling them "syrup suckers" and "iceholes." The humor depends on how American viewers think of Canada, which is to say not exactly as the evil empire.

Other countries might take umbrage at that sort of satire. Canadians mostly don't.

"Are you kidding?" Rudge says. "It's so cold here we develop really thick skin."

Canadians understand funny. Once, when a tape recording revealed Richard Nixon had called him that earthier version of icehole, Trudeau quipped, "I've been called worse things by better people."

For Canadians, all of this makes these Games seem heaven-sent. Their American friends, who mostly take them for granted, will soon have no choice but to fix their gaze on the True North, strong and free.

Oh, and if you don't know that last phrase, get used to it. You just might be hearing O Canada quite often in the weeks ahead.

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