Quick thought for y’all:
The enormity of expectations weighted upon Canadian athletes at the Olympic Winter Games by our host broadcasters (and thus the public) is ludicrous.
It’s not because I just finished watching Jennifer Heil finish second in women’s moguls. It’s more of a sentiment that I’ve been feeling since the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games began yesterday, and even a few days prior. How can our athletes expect to perform to the best of their abilities or be satisfied with silver medals when they are burdened by third-party blanket statements basically guaranteeing that they will win gold?
Leading up to the Games, fundraising organizations like Own The Podium iterated through their actions that all that was stopping Canada from ‘owning’ the medal count in Vancouver was money. At the Games, host broadcaster CTV took it a few steps further and pronounced about 30 times on the opening day that in no uncertain terms, Canada “will win gold on home soil for the first time.” In fact, several times today, worst-offender daytime host Lisa Laflamme said, “which one of Saturday’s athletes will it be? Manuel Osborne Paradis? Charles Hamelin? Jennifer Heil?” “Well,” she said, “the men’s downhill has been postponed, so Osborne Paradis won’t win gold first.”
Beyond arrogant, her proclamations were downright insane. Furthermore, watching Canadian athletes passionately announce to the camera, during innumerable profile film spots, that they won’t be held back, won’t be under-prepared and won’t be satisfied with anything other than gold, all I could think of was how ridiculous they sounded. They know better than all of us how unpredictable their events are, and how far we (and they) would have to fall back to earth if (and when) they didn’t deliver. Of course CTV would like as much of their coverage scripted as possible. It makes the process of broadcasting such a complex event that much easier. But that’s not the way it works, unfortunately.
These are competitive sports. You don’t expect gold, you hope for it. You hope for personal bests and top finishes. Canada’s ‘hopefuls’ are not competing against mannequins or dummies. In Jenn Heil’s case, she laid down a solid run (not spectacular) and was beaten by a skier who had a phenomenal run. What was she supposed to do about it? Charles Hamelin found himself in a 1500-metre semi-final heat that included three of the top five short track speedskaters in the world. Only the top 2 could advance. He did not finish among them. In what universe would anyone basically guarantee he’d win his semi-final and then win the final?
Of course Canada will win a gold – heck, we’ll probably win several. But to pin marketing campaigns and media blitzes on the guarantee of it, and pin those expectations on specific athletes is ignorant and disrespectful.
The Olympics attract the best athletes in the world. That’s the point of their existence. Is there anything wrong with finishing near the top? Besides, part of the Olympic experience is that great performances come out of nowhere, and that dreams are both made and shattered.
The problem with raising such expectations is that anything less than victory leaves us spectators and the athletes themselves with an overwhelming sense of disappointment, when coming in second place should be something wonderful and to be proud of in its own right. One of the most enduring images I remember from the Beijing Olympics was when triathlete Simon Whitfield won his silver medal. No one expected it, despite the fact that he’d won gold in Sydney and was one of the world’s preeminent specialists in his trade, and that is what made it so special.
It is winning silver, not losing gold. If the athletes themselves feel like holding themselves to higher standards, that’s up to them. But we should be proud no matter what.
Our Canadian brand revolves around humility, gentility, and modesty. Perhaps our over-the-top broadcasters and sponsors should under-promise and over-deliver, rather than over-promising with no control over the outcomes. Then we can all be satisfied and occasionally surprised, just like every other nation.