Hoping to break the jinx
Canada looking for first gold medal on home turf
VANCOUVER – “ What would you do,” the voice in the lottery commercial asks TV watchers, “with a million dollars?”
A Cadillac? Vegas? Time share on the Mayern Riviera? Oh well. We dare to dream, kind of like the Canadian athletes carrying the red and white flag on home turf at the 2010 edition of the Winter Olympic Games opening today.
If you’re the Canadian Olympic Committee, a million bucks — times 100 — hopefully converts into gold, and the great big monkey finally flung off a nation’s athletic back.
Twice Canada has staged the Olympic Games in the True North Strong and Free — Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in ’ 88 — and twice we’ve whiffed at gold.
No other country, in fact, holds the distinction of being shut out of gold at home.
The good news is that will change this time around, as Canada fields — er, ices — it’s most prepared, best-funded and best-equipped team ever sent to an Olympic Games.
One hundred and seventeen million dollars tends to do that.
The Own the Podium program has meant unparalleled cash for training and equipment for Canadian athletes to have a genuine, honest-to-goodness shot at surpassing this country’s record showing at the last Winter Olympics four years ago in Turin, Italy with seven gold medals, 10 silvers and seven bronze.
Shortly after Vancouver was awarded the Olympics in 2003, the COC, federal government, Vancouver organizing committee and others agreed to collaborate on a single goal: unprecedented Canadian success in 2010. Own the Podium was born. Only Germany, with 29 medals, and the U.S., with 25, topped Canada on the leaderboard.
At the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, both the U.S. and Canada tied with 13 medals apiece. Four years later, in Nagano, Japan, Canada bested the States by two medals, garnering 15.
Then the Americans instituted their own program, designed to pay dividends for the 2002 Games to be staged in Sale Lake City, Utah.
It worked. They finished with 34 medals to Canada’s 17, placing behind only Germany on the overall leaderboard.
“Canada learned from that,” said Roger Jackson, the former Canadian rowing gold medallist who now heads up Own the Podium.
In 2006, Canada stopped being average. Here in Vancouver, the aim is to be downright superb and if 2009 is any indication, Canada is on the right track.
In all the winter sports world championships last year, Canada won 29 medals, more than the U.S., more than Germany.
“ We’ve seen dramatic improvement,” Jackson said. “ We do things better now rather than showing up.”
This year’s Canadian contingent includes 32 medallists from Torino and six world champs from 2009.
Leading Canada’s hopes, of course, are the men’s and women’s hockey teams. The curlers, both male and female, are automatic medal hopefuls the moment they step on the ice.
And speaking of ice, there’s the speed skaters. In a sport once dominated by the Europeans, Canada has broken through the barrier, witness Cindy Klassen’s five-medal performance in Torino.
Klassen’s coming off surgery on both knees, but there’s a supporting cast ready to pick up the slack. Kristina Groves will skate in five events and is a contender in all of them, and Christine Nesbitt won the 1,000 metre title at the world championships last March. Clara Hughes, the flag bearer for tonight’s opening ceremonies, won silver in the 5,000 metres in the past two world championships.
In bobsleigh, Kaillie Humphries and Summerside, P.E.I.’s Heather Moyse are expected to contend after reaching the podium in a World Cup event this season. Ageless Pierre Leuders, in his fifth Olympics, will figure in men’s four-man bob.
Figure skating, one of the bigticket events of the Winter Olympics, features Patrick Chan and Joannie Rochette in men’s and women’s. Both are world silver medallists.
Given the pressure facing the Canadians this time around, it might be wise for one of them to medal early in Vancouver, if for nothing else to ease a bit of pressure.
But, said Jackson, an analysis of the top six competitors in each Olympic event shows the Germans and Americans expected to lead the medal count through days one through 13.
Canada’s strength, he said, will be in the events in the final four or five days of the Games when this country could grab as many as 15 medals.
“ There’s the men’s and women’s hockey and curling, women’s figure skating, speed skating team pursuit, freestyle skiing and snowboard,” he said. “ We have to be patient.”
With $117 million sunk into a program, that’s a lot easier said than done.
Robin Short is sports editor at The Telegram in St. John’s, N.L., currently on
assignment at the Olympic Games.