U.S. Owns Podium At Vancouver Olympics

U.S. athletes have put on an impressive performance at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Despite Canada's "Own the Podium" program, the host nation has not picked up as many medals as it had hoped.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To Vancouver now, where for the host country it has gone from Own the Podium to newspaper lines like Groan the Podium and Blown the Podium. Canada's big push to win medals at the Winter Games has not turned out as planned, at least not so far.

With us from Vancouver is NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

Tom, what happened to team Canada?

TOM GOLDMAN: People here are trying to figure that out, Robert. The Canadian Olympic Committee did acknowledge today the stated goal of the Own the Podium Program, that's for Canada to become the number one nation in terms of medals at these games. That's not going to happen.

Officials did say, on the bright side, that Canada has more top eight finishes than in the last Olympic Winter Games, so that's something to hang their hat on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I've forgotten to tally up the top eights.

GOLDMAN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: What are the ideas people are offering there to explain why team Canada has not lived up to expectations?

GOLDMAN: A number of theories are being floated. There's the pressure theory, that there is so much extra pressure on Canadian athletes to do well at home, and the pressure from the expectations of the Own the Podium Program.

One of the moments of these games is when a female Canadian skeleton racer, a favorite in the event who was leading going into the final run, she fell to fifth place. And then she cried in an interview afterwards and said she'd let down her country. It was kind of a signature moment.

A top Canadian long track speed skater blamed his poor performance directly on Own the Podium, which reportedly prevented this athlete, Denny Morrison from continuing to train with world number one Shani Davis because he's from the U.S.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

GOLDMAN: And Morrison said he'd lost the edge of being pushed by the world's best. Now, his coach wasn't buying that, though. He said Morrison set a world record while training with Canadian athletes.

And then, Robert, there's the theory that the whole swaggering concept of owning the podium is very un-Canadian. That sort of aggressiveness is not a characteristic of the Canadian people, even among the country's elite athletes.

SIEGEL: You think they'd be more likely to share the podium politely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Exactly. They would be nice on the podium, yeah.

SIEGEL: And exhibit A here, last night's hockey game. What happened?

GOLDMAN: Oh, boy. Well, what happened was a tough, scrappy, young American team beat a veteran, star-studded Canadian team, beat the team from the country which claims hockey is its own in its house, and a very, very bad moment for team Canada.

The silver lining, though, and Canadians are getting very used to finding to looking for silver linings up here, they could Canada wasn't eliminated from the tournament. That means Canadians have to play an extra game to get to the quarter finals, while the U.S. goes into the quarters automatically, but Canada can't lose any more games or they're out, and no amount of rationalization will get past the fact that Canada not winning the gold medal in men's hockey is a huge disappointment.

SIEGEL: Well, look, the U.S. is a larger country, but what is it that the U.S. Winter Olympics program knows that Canada evidently doesn't know?

GOLDMAN: Well, certainly, America has some really good athletes peaking at the right time. There's a lot of good training that's going on, a big collection of talented, mentally tough athletes.

Interestingly, most of the medal winners are Olympic veterans who have been at past winter games, people like Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Shani Davis, Shaun White. They know how to deal with all the craziness of these games.

Today, a U.S. official talked about how the U.S. started ramping up its athlete development program after the Salt Lake City games in 2002, and eight years later, it appears to be paying off. This U.S. official said it does take consistent funding. With the Own the Podium program not working here in Canada, there's talk that funding might not continue, at least at the high level it's been at. That would probably be the wrong move if they still do want to develop these Canadian athletes.

SIEGEL: Now, Tom, another Canadian story at the games, a much sadder story, the mother of a figure skater died yesterday. And she was there at the games with her daughter, and do I have it right that her daughter will still compete?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's a real stunner, a very sad, sad story. Joannie Rochette, a figure skater, entered in the ladies figure skating program, she has decided to skate this week. She actually took the ice in practice a few hours after getting the news that her mom had died, and it's really going to be an emotional moment tomorrow when she takes the ice for the short program.

Certainly, Canada will embrace her, and, you know, Robert, it could put all this hand-wringing over medals not won into perspective. You know, just the fact that Rochette is out there competing will be quite a stirring moment.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Tom Goldman in Vancouver.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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