LONDON -- Eight years ago in Athens, Tonya Verbeek felt she had lost gold. She was younger then, a "little bit of a brat," in her words. "Oh, I wanted it all," she said, and when she lost the 55-kilogram women's wrestling final, she was bummed, devastated, upset.
Here in London, Verbeek had a different perspective. She was wiser now, 34 years old, almost certainly ending her Olympic career. Oh, she still wanted it all -- a gold to go with that silver and the bronze she got four years ago in Beijing. But this time, when she ran into the same brick wall in the final, three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan, she didn't feel like a failure.
"I stepped off that mat," she said, "feeling like I won silver.''
Experience the Olympics for long enough, and you understand everything is relative. Success is not defined strictly by medals -- for nations as well as individuals. You come. You compete. You see where you stack up. But what it means depends on the circumstances.
By one measure, these Games were a disappointment for Canada. One gold? That's the lowest total since 1976, when Canada was shut out on home soil in Montreal, and that's a poor return on millions of dollars of real money that was spent to develop these athletes -- some of it government money. The Own the Podium program is missing something -- the "w." Canadians were on the podium, but they didn't own it. With five silvers and 12 bronzes, you might call this the Bronze Age.
But by another measure, these Games about met expectations. Canada won 18 medals, finishing 13th in the overall count. The Canadian Olympic Committee's goal was "Top 12 in 2012," but that was considered ambitious before the Games began. The totals are in line with history. Canada won 18 medals and finished 14th four years ago in Beijing. It won exactly three golds in five of the previous six Summer Games, so one isn't a big drop-off. It averaged 16.8 medals over the previous five Summer Games, so 18 ain't bad.
So much of this comes down to population and priorities and resources, and Canada is a relatively small nation of 35-million people who live in a cold climate and value winter sports most. Canada won 14 gold medals at the 2010 Winter Games, more than any other nation. Canada won 26 medals overall, third-most. Would you rather have had Sidney Crosby score the winner in ice hockey in Vancouver or the winner in field hockey in London?
"I'm not looking at medal tables," said triathlete Simon Whitfield, the Canadian flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony. "I'm not trying to compare Canada to the Chinese. That's a fool's game. They're not going to beat us at hockey. I don't think they sit around and look at the hockey going, 'Man, those Canadians, I can't believe they beat us.' "
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Why does it feel like there was so much disappointment? Because Canada has fewer medal contenders in the Summer Games, they are followed more closely. Stars are singled out, especially if they have succeeded in the past, and expectations can become a little unrealistic.
Adam van Koeverden won two medals in Athens -- gold in the men's kayak single 500 metres, bronze in the 1,000 metres. He raced well leading up to Beijing. But did that set him up for success or failure?
"People were counting my two gold medals before I showed up," said van Koeverden, who won silver in the 500 metres and finished eighth in the 1,000 in Beijing. "I was resentful of that. Everybody's like, 'He's going to win two gold medals.' It's a ridiculous thing to say."
Same thing happened here. He was supposed to win the 1,000 metres. He won silver instead. Though he was going for gold and told his own mother his medal was the wrong colour, he knew he went head-to-head with longtime friend and training partner Eirik Veras Larsen of Norway, who won gold in the event in Athens and silver in Beijing. He knew what he was up against.
"It's really hard," van Koeverden said. "It's hard to win Olympic silver. It's hard to squeeze out a bronze."
There is always a lot of disappointment at the Olympics. But if an American disappoints, the national U.S. media just moves on to whoever didn't that day. They have more medals than they can cover. But if a Canadian disappoints, the national media tells the story in excruciating detail -- Whitfield crashing his bike in the triathlon, Mary Spencer losing her debut bout in women's boxing, Dylan Armstrong finishing fifth in the shot put, and on and on.
Canadians feel the weight of competing for their country acutely, and sometimes they feel the need to apologize -- like when Paula Findlay crossed the line last in the women's triathlon, like when Catharine Pendrel finished ninth in the women's mountain bike race and said she was sorry to all the people back in British Columbia who had woken up at 4:30 to watch her. It is as if the whole nation is one big small town.
"There's just a lot of pressure," Whitfield said, "and we care deeply how we do."
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But deep down, we all know everything's relative. That's why the bronze medal in women's soccer was so sweet. That's why the bronze medal in the men's 4x100-metre relay would have been so sweet -- and why it was the biggest heartbreak of the Games when Canada was disqualified, because Jared Connaughton's left foot barely touched outside his lane line. We knew the competition, and we respected it.
We should respect the competition overall and remember all the triumph for Canada in these Games, too -- not only Rosie MacLennan's gold in trampoline, but Ryan Cochrane's silver in the 1,500 free, the silvers won by both the men's and women's rowing eights, Derek Drouin's surprising bronze in the men's high jump, Mark Oldershaw becoming the first of five family members to make the podium in a canoe, Emilie Heymans becoming the first woman to medal in four straight Olympics in diving, and on and on.
Milos Raonic lost in the second round in men's tennis, but not before battling the sixth-ranked player in the world, France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, through a 48-game, three-hour third set, the longest in Olympic history. Damian Warner set six personal bests in the decathlon and finished fifth. He was one of the best stories here, and he didn't even make the podium, let alone own it.
Verbeek never beat Yoshida at the Olympics, never won gold and never will, just like Canada will never beat the United States or China in the medal count in the Summer Games. But she won a medal for the third straight Olympics, and she has more medals than any other wrestler in Canadian history, and that's enough.
"I know that we should as Canadians feel that of course there's always more that we can do," she said. "But right now, let's be happy with what we have."
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