For many of the big names here, this was not an Olympics destined for pride of place in the national memory box.
The host nation spent three weeks fending off complaints about organizational minutiae. The Russians were booed everywhere they went.
Chinese media veered off party lines to criticize an underwhelming performance. (The state’s main agit-prop outlet, Xinhua, did a social-media spit take – “You’re kidding me?” – when it was overtaken by Britain on the table.)
Medal memories: Looking back on the moments Canada won gold, silver and bronze (The Globe and Mail)
The United States … well, we’ll get to them.
This left Canada – a nation of measured aspiration and high tolerance for good effort – looking golden by comparison. You could reasonably argue that no country had a more fulfilling Olympic experience, front to back.
Depending on how you measure it (so let’s assume we measure it the way that makes us look best), Canada finished tenth on the medal table Sunday.
A pre-tournament target of “19 plus” podiums was exceeded by three. There were more golds (four) than in any Summer Games since Barcelona ’92. And this wasn’t a sudden glorious run in air pistoling or horse passengering.
Canada was right there in the glamour events (i.e. track and swimming) and team sports (i.e. the ones everyone cares about outside these few weeks every four years).
On Sunday, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s supremos were pushed out to receive their plaudits. They took them, and at great length.
You’d like to say, ‘We’d win gold every time if they had a backslapping event,’ but fair’s fair. If Canada had staggered badly here, the COC would’ve been killed back home. The Marcel Aubut scandal would’ve been pulled out of deep freeze and thawed out for further press flagellation. Noted jurists would’ve have had to cancel Labour Day cottage excursions in anticipation of the Royal Commission appointment. That favourite Canadian pastime – punching ourselves in the face over things that don’t really matter – would’ve consumed much of the fall.
That’s all in the rear view now.
What you were left with was the intertwining of two strands in Canadian Olympic thinking – the me-firstism of Own the Podium, and the fail-with-dignity philosophy that preceded it.
What Canada proved here is that medals are just one part of Olympic success. In order to claim an overall win, prizes must be combined with a larger sense that we showed well when everyone else was looking. It’s important that no one go out of their way to make a jerk of themselves.
I’m pleased to report that Canada was jerk-free. With more than 300 competitors operating under intense pressure and unaccustomed scrutiny, it’s a remarkable feat. If, for some strange reason they’d like to try it the other way round, they’ll want to construct a PowerPoint of America’s Olympic PR approach.
On a purely metric level, our neighbours won these Games. Their medal total nearly doubled the second-place finisher. But it was no success for them.
Day after day, America took its foot and jammed it in its own mouth. Then commenced a vigorous shoving.
Whether it was rubbishing teammates (Lilly King), boorishly contravening the spirit of fair play (Hope Solo), or demonizing its own for insufficient displays of patriotic zeal to the Vaterland (poor Gabby Douglas), America repeatedly found a way to make its Olympic story about anything but the Olympics.
The ne plus ultra was, of course, Ryan Lochte’s drunken foray into international political brinkmanship. El Salvador and Honduras once fought a brief war over a World Cup qualifying match. This was worse.
All the good work of the many American competitors who came here, competed and kept themselves to themselves was undone by Lochte’s tiny bladder and thick skull. Since Americans seem to be going off the Olympics (based on NBC’s viewership numbers), the home media rushed in to grab hold of a story that guaranteed eyeballs, if not good feels. The result was news-cycle cannibalism. America spent the past week here chewing on its own hind leg.
An elliptical question on that topic allowed COC president Tricia Smith to utter the most Canadian thought since the dawn of Confederation: “We’re not perfect, either. Nobody’s perfect.”
America, come on in for a hug. You look like you could use one. If you want, you can borrow one of our race walkers for a few days. But we’re going to need him back.
We may not be perfect, but our athletes were. For three weeks, win or lose, they comported themselves with enormous, across-the-board class.
When things went right, they were humble.
(On Sunday, the Canadian flag bearer for the closing ceremonies, 16-year-old swimmer Penny Oleksiak, was given a chance to bask in her four-medal magnificence.
What did you get up to over the past week?
“I’ve been sleeping and eating a lot of junk food,” Oleksiak said. “It’s been pretty fun this last week just to chill out and everything.”
(What a showoff.)
When things went wrong, Canadian athletes were sanguine. They treated this event with the respect it deserves by declining to make it about themselves.
That generosity reinforced our overarching belief about what the Olympics are – an opportunity to project our collective values.
One slip can undo that. Our athletes avoided it not because they’re clever or media savvy. But because, as a nation, we’ve never held winning up as the only goal.
As a Canadian Olympian, you don’t have to be embarrassed if you don’t win. All the country demands is that you do your best. It’s the sort of thing other people say, but we’ve proved over and over again that we mean it. Many others do not. That’s why so many ill-advised outbursts afflicted them here.
Canadian medalists, especially the women, rolled in Rio. That’s what we’ll remember in a decade. But the underlying story – and the more important one – is that this was a collective effort by some 36 million team members.
We asked them to represent us well. Every one of them – both on the field of play and off it – accomplished that in world-class style.
RIO DE JANEIRO — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016 6:02PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Aug. 22, 2016 6:39AM EDT