Own the Podium’s expectations too much for Olympians?

As many of Canada’s top Winter Olympians have missed the podium questions are now being asked about the future the Own the Podium program.

We take you behind the scenes this month with our timely Vancouver Games Blog, an insider perspective on sport medicine and science headlines, talking points, statistical data and emerging trends.

Were the expectations of the $110-million Own the Podium program just too lofty or completely unrealistic? With even Canada’s “dream team” of can’t miss NHLers faltering in the Men’s Hockey preliminary rounds everyone is weighing in on Canada’s less than golden results.

Chief executive of the COC Chris Rudge admitted this morning that the goal of Canada winning the most medals is now unrealistic – citing the unexpectedly strong performances of South Korea, China and the Americans.

Alan Maki in the Globe and Mail in an article titled “Anxious, Sadder Sorrier” had this to say:

Olympic sports are wrought with unexpected twists, from favourites flopping to underdogs succeeding. At these Games, one fifth-place finish has been hailed as a majestic achievement (Ivan Babikovv’s showing in men’s cross-country skiing pursuit) while another can look like as if someone fell off the chairlift. But the standards for 2010 were set so high that failure wasn’t considered.

We talked about the home-field advantage. We didn’t dwell nearly as much on the disadvantages, which is why our athletes have found themselves at a loss to say much beyond, “I’m sorry.”

Alpine Canada’s medal drought has for many been the biggest disappointment. The last time they medalled in an Olympics was 1994. With but slalom and giant slalom left in the 2010 games  it now all comes down to  Michael Janyk as Canada’s last great hope to make a podium. Dawn Walton and James Christie in the Globe and Mail in an article titled “A long way off the podium” tried to get answers:

What on earth has gone wrong?

“Dealing with the hometown pressure, I’ve got to agree, it did have an impact on the performance of the athletes,” said Gary Allan, president of Alpine Canada, on another day when Canadian skiers were kept off the podium, this time in the men’s super combined.

“I’m going to look back at things that could have changed,” he said, adding that media hype may also have got to the skiers.

So did Canada choke? Did ski officials bet on the wrong horses? Are injuries that knocked out some of the top performers and cast a pall on the entire team to blame?

“It’s not that simple,” said Steve Podborski, Canada’s assistant chef de mission at the Games. Or maybe it is. “It’s hard to win at the Olympics,” he added.

Some are calling for the Own the Podium program to be axed based on the lack of results combined with the tough fiscal world we now live in. A Globe and Mail editorial says differently though, that it is in fact a very worthy goal to strive to own the podium:

From the outset, the COC’s Own the Podium program was determined to be number one. It was a unique effort – $110-million of government, corporate and individual donations targeted at specific athletes in events Canada felt we could win. While the program may not reach its stated medal goal – we’ll see – it has taken Canadian athletics to a new level in an increasingly competitive world. It’s also inspired a generation of athletes.

Of course, tough questions should be asked once the Olympics are over. Was all that money spent on the right athletes and the right sports? Was it spent efficiently? And should we continue to fund our elite athletes at this level, even in fiscally tough times?

But one thing should already be clear. Regardless of this week’s results, our Olympians deserve public funding – and the ongoing support of business and individuals. In just one week, they’ve succeeded where countless government programs have failed to bring Canada together. And the best week lies ahead.

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