Why would a government put money into programs to have podium performances at the Olympics? It’s become a kind of measure: how effective is our country, our system, our way of life?
Why we love the Olympics
Our athletes are excelling in Rio. Here's why Canadians love the Olympic games.
By BRIDGET STIRLING
There’s something inherently Canadian about being a sports fan—having a hockey jersey in your closet, being able to name all nine teams in the CFL without looking, cheering on the Blue Jays—to the point that "The Hockey Theme" is sometimes considered our unofficial national anthem. But every two years, summer or winter, there’s one big international event that draws even those who don’t care much for sports: the Olympics.
“I think that the Olympics speak to one of the particular motivations, that people create an identity,” explains Billy Strean, professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. “The Olympics, with national identity, pull in people in a way that your typical, everyday NHL or CFL sports may not.”
That national identity can translate into significant investments. According to Own The Podium, the Canadian organization that funds athletes and sports organizations with potential to win big at the Games, the Government of Canada alone invests $62 million per year in what is called enhanced excellence funding—and that’s not counting provincial governments, non-profits and other agencies that help support the organization.
Our sense of identification with Canada’s Olympic performance helps to explain this investment.
This national identity is also why Canadians tend to get more excited about sports like ice hockey. Canadian culture and identity is deeply tied to some sports, whereas others, like soccer, are favourites in other parts of the world.
Everyone loves a story
Balancing people’s identification with a national story is a much more personal connection: our identification with the narratives of individual athletes. Most Canadians remember the powerful personal stories of athletes like Joanie Rochette, who won bronze at the 2010 games in Vancouver after receiving news of her mother’s death shortly before her short-program skate, or hurdler Perdita Felicien, whose gold medal hopes in Athens in 2004 ended with a heartbreaking fall during the final. In Rio, 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak became a sensation after winning four medals in swimming.
"Welcome to grade 11. First to present their essay on 'how I spent my summer vacation' is Penny. Penny? Anything cool?" #pennyoleksiak— Joey Oberhoffner (@oberhoffner) August 11, 2016
“You get this human interest lens, the person facing hardships. Everybody likes a good underdog story.”
Strean explains that these personal stories engage viewers who may otherwise be uninterested in the games.
“If you look at the way sports and the Olympics in particular have been covered, and if you look at U.S. TV coverage, they figured out at least 30 or 40 years ago that not everybody likes sports, but the kind of people who might be peripherally interested because somebody else in their house might turn on the TV—they might get pulled in by what ABC calls ‘Up Close and Personal.’”
By telling these human interest stories, media covering the Games have found the perfect lure for people who don’t engage with an athlete simply because of the flag on their jersey. Although they may not have known much about freestyle skiing, Canadian fans couldn’t help but fall in love with Alexandre Bilodeau, who won Canada’s first gold medal at home in 2010 and dedicated it to his brother Frédéric, who has cerebral palsy.
“By telling the story of this person and his or her challenges and family and all of this that they’re bringing to the Olympics, and why this matters to them, and what their journey has been—that is a way that people can get involved.”
We’re so invested in the stories of the Games that they can become almost as big as the sporting achievements themselves, says Strean.
“If you look at the big narratives of the Olympics, one is the idea that all these nations can come together in some kind of collaboration.” This sense of unity balances with the fascination we have with the competition to reach the top. “It also has this idea that we want to see the very best of human potential: the whole idea of the Olympics, of ‘faster, stronger, higher,’ that we’re going to see the pinnacle that human beings are capable of, and on the world stage.”
Together, says Strean, it all creates the drama, the intrigue and the narrative of the Olympics. And Canadians are hooked. We love the Olympics so much that during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, 92 per cent of Canadians tuned in at some point to watch the CBC’s coverage of the Games.
When pride turns to shame
Though our identification with Olympic athletes is powerful, it can also present a challenge to our sense of identity when they fail to live up to our ideas of who we are as a country. One of the strongest examples of this was during the doping scandal that saw sprinter Ben Johnson stripped of his gold medal and world record after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs at the 1998 games in Seoul, South Korea.
“We want to see ourselves as good and honest people, and we’re a good, law-abiding nation,” Strean notes, “and then this person who’s representing Canada and has gotten huge attention for a world record turns out to be a cheater. That’s a huge blow from that perspective of national identity and how we see ourselves.If it was just a guy that we related to as performing as an individual, it wouldn’t be a big story. But because it’s connected with this whole story of Canada as a nation performing, then that’s the lens through which it’s interpreted.
“The bigger the balloon gets when it’s inflated, the louder it is when it pops.”
The same challenge holds true when a country struggles to put on a successful Games. There’s a lot of national pride and identity tied up in being a host country, and with news swirling around Brazil’s readiness for Rio, the country’s honour is at stake: “What does it say about Brazil if they can’t get everything together on time?”
Identity far from home
Even when people move away from their country of origin, Strean notes, their Olympic fandom can tell you a lot about how much they’ve come to identify—or not—with their new home.
Strean noticed this transition in himself after moving to Canada from the United States, where he grew up. He has watched the rivalry between the two countries in women’s hockey and soccer, and at first the American women had his support. But over time, his changing interest reflected his changing identity.
“When I first came here, I probably would be, without really thinking about it, much more of a U.S. fan. Over time, I noticed myself way more invested in the Canadian team. But when it’s convenient, I can pull out my American flag.”
For people living in a new country, it can become a way to stake out an identity separate from those around them. “You’re making a point of, ‘I’m not one of you. I’m rooting for my motherland.’”
In the end, though, it comes down to owning a little piece of the Olympic glory. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the Games. Strean says the way we understand brand identification can help us understand why people love the Olympics.
“Why would adolescents pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of jeans? Is it because of its superior fabric performance? No, it’s because you think that other people are going to think something valuable about you. It’s the same phenomenon that’s a big driver of people’s behaviour.”
In studies on U.S. college campuses, researchers have found that the day after a big sports win, more people can be observed wearing the school’s colours and merchandise. In the same way, during a Stanley Cup run, you will see far more Oilers jerseys on the streets of Edmonton.
“And if you start seeing any flurry of success at the Olympics, you can probably find more people wearing things that connect them. ‘Hey, look at me, I’m connected to this, I’m part of this success,’” says Strean.
“When someone performs really well at the Olympics, maybe wins a medal, then it’s kind of like I, because of my identification with them, bask in the reflected glory.”