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Once all the post-mortems of the just-completed Olympic Winter Games in Canada are written, one major success will stand out above the others: Canada’s national effort to ensure the success of their athletes on the slopes and frozen surfaces of British Columbia. Say what you will about Canada’s “Own the Podium” initiative, but the bottom line is that it worked.
Canada previously hosted two Olympics: the Summer Games in Montreal in 1976 and the Winter Games in Calgary in 1988. At neither of these games did the host nation win a gold medal, results that led to snickering about Canadians wanting to be such great hosts that they refused to upset their guests by claiming the top of the podium in any one event, including national sports like hockey. Indeed, the Canadians were outstanding hosts this time, too, but they did not let that get in the way of a fierce determination to move up in the medal count.
Apparently, the third time is the charm. At the final bell, Canada had amassed more gold medals than anyone else, and had finished third in the overall medal count. The final event, the hockey championship against the United States, went according to some Hollywood script, calling for the hosts improbably to give up the tying goal just before time, while then fighting back in overtime for the game-winner from national golden boy Sidney Crosby. Canada went berserk, and the celebration began in earnest.
And why not? Canada has earned the right to celebrate. In fact, one wonders whether the celebration of the final Sunday events weren’t at the same time a giant national exhale, showing what Canadians can do when they so choose. The Games themselves were a big success, with only the usual, manageable glitches that accompany every Olympic Games everywhere, and the national side set a new standard for performance in event after event. Canadians may not have “owned” the podium, but they sure did stand on it a lot.
More broadly, given Canada’s experience, it will be very interesting to see how Brazil, the host of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games, will choose to prepare for its golden opportunity. Latin American nations have traditionally underperformed at the Olympics. In fact, not one medal was won in Vancouver by a nation south of the United States. Partially, that’s because Latin America doesn’t really have winter sports other than skiing in the Andes, and most Andean nations simply cannot devote the resources required to mount a consistent effort to develop world class athletes. But, apart from Cuba, even the Olympic Summer Games are generally bereft of Latin American medalists outside soccer and the occasional Costa Rican swimmer, Mexican race walker or Brazilian (indoor or beach) volleyball team.
Brazil, an emerging global power in its own right, has plenty of time to work on that aspect of hosting a successful Games. At this point, many observers have raised the issues of infrastructure, security and all the rest, and those are important issues. But ultimately, the games are about the athletes, and the national image is enhanced through their performance on the field of play. Latin America and especially Brazil can do it, but a great leap forward at the Olympics will require an intensive, sustained effort.
Just ask Canada.
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.
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