In The Media

An Olympic-sized lesson

by Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson

July 30, 2012

With all of the doom and gloom dominating this month’s headlines — the ever impending collapse of the Euro, sluggish U.S. growth and job numbers, civil war and mayhem in Syria, the looming prospect of a war in the Gulf if Iran does not check its nuclear ambitions, and closer to home the brutal killings in Colorado and earlier in Toronto — Friday’s opening ceremonies to the Olympic games were a welcome tonic of optimism. For the next two weeks, the games will dominate headlines.

The ancient Greek historian got it right when he said “Tis not for Money they contend, but for Glory.” Put the adjective “national” before “glory” and you capture the sentiment of today’s modern games. That’s the bigger lesson here for Canada.

At the Vancouver Winter Games there was a lot of snickering about Canada’s “own the podium” program, especially when the early medal tally count didn’t meet with expectations. But our athletes and those behind the program were vindicated when we ended up winning more gold medals than any other country while coming third in the total medal tally count.

It is heartening to see our athletes and their coaches going into the London games with the same sense of self-assurance they had in Vancouver. Winning in any sport starts with the belief that you are a winner. The old adage “it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play game” is just plain wrong. Yes, you should be a good sportsman or sportswoman. But you are not playing the game to lose. You are playing for the glory that comes with the top place on the podium.

But winning requires a lot more than swagger and self-confidence. It also takes years of professional training, stamina, well-developed programs, and large doses of corporate and government support because training cannot be done on the cheap. And yes, you do need talent, but the other 95 per cent is blood, sweat, and tears.

The competitive spirit that Canada’s athletes are showing in these games should provide both inspiration and a key lesson for our political class. As our leaders reckon with the many challenges Canada now faces, they could use a strong dose of the same Olympic tonic.

When it comes to doing business with China and the markets of the emerging world, for example, we are not going to “own the podium” if we play by old rules and behave like well-intentioned boy scouts.

It also requires more than “playing the game” if we want to secure our future prosperity. We need to adjust our focus smartly to markets where the opportunities are greatest. As we do now with the Olympics, we must break out of the cocoon of complacency and go for gold. We also have to break out of the petty provincialism as evidenced by last week’s premiers’ summit in Halifax. If premiers want a place on the world stage, they should do so under a united, coherent Maple Leaf standard. In today’s world we do not have the luxury to divide among ourselves.

Further, as CNOOC’s dramatic bid to buy the Canadian oil giant Nexen demonstrates, our new global partners are smart and canny operators. The reality is that in emerging economies, like China, the state will use its power to direct major companies to act in its interests. Many foreign owned firms in China and other emerging markets also benefit from access to publicly funded, low-cost capital.

However, Canada has what emerging markets need — an abundance of resources and technological know-how. We must therefore negotiate customized trade and investment arrangements with this in mind and use our comparative advantage competitively to advance our own national interests and strategic objectives.

When Canada engages with emerging markets on trade and investment, it should only give equivalent value for what it can gain in terms of access. And it must negotiate with all the skill of an Olympic wrestler with effective takedown techniques, penetration skills, and the ability to engage one’s opponent without breaking from a strong position.

As in the Olympics, government too has a hand in supporting Canada’s global corporate champions. Canada’s federal and provincial governments must pursue domestic policies that will lead to the growth of competitive, outward-oriented firms, recognizing that success at home is essential to winning globally. Governments should not be picking winners. They should, however, create a supportive domestic and international environment in which enterprising Canadian firms can compete and grow, and should nurture those sectors of the economy that are critical to our future prosperity.

Canada will only succeed in today’s fast changing global economy if our political and business elites follow the same lessons of how we upped our performance in the Olympics.

Derek Burney, an Officer of the Order of Canada, is a senior strategic advisor to Norton Rose Canada LLP. Mr. Burney is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a visiting professor and senior distinguished fellow at Carleton University. He is also a director of several Canadian companies including TransCanada Corp., builders of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Fen Osler Hampson is the Chancellor’s Professor and Director of The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He is the author of nine books and editor/co-editor of more than 25 other volumes on international affairs and Canadian foreign policy.

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