GOLD rush

Freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau wins Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal on home soil


VAN­COU­VER — Fi­nally. Canada claimed its first-ever Olympic gold medal on home soil Sun­day as freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau of Rose­mere, Que., blis­tered the men’s moguls run at Cy­press Moun­tain and nar­rowly edged out top-ranked Dale Begg-Smith, who orig­i­nally hails from Van­cou­ver but was rep­re­sent­ing his adopted home of Aus­tralia.

With the win, the 22-year-old not only gave Canada its first gold of the 2010 Games, but pre­vented what might well have been a na­tional catas­tro­phe of Olympic pro­por­tions: watch­ing the hon­our of a Cana­dian winning gold in Canada go to some­one who was com­pet­ing for the com­pe­ti­tion.

The mood at Cy­press was de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent than Satur­day, when Canada’s first medal of the Games — a less-than-sat­is­fy­ing sil­ver — went to women’s moguls skier Jen­nifer Heil.

Af­ter the race, the diminu­tive Bilodeau punched the air with his fists and gave an elated crowd the thumbs up, while a de­jected-looking Begg-Smith re­fused to even crack a smile as he took sec­ond place on the podium.

Though it might well have been the day’s most sat­is­fy­ing medal, it wasn’t the first.

Ear­lier, the home-team fans show­ered their speed­skat­ing sweet­hearts with love, and promptly saw their Valen­tine’s Day af­fec­tions re­quited with a bronze medal from Ottawa long-tracker Kristina Groves.

Groves, 33, earned a warm bear hug from her fel­low Cana­dian racer, the flame-haired flag-bearer Clara Hughes, af­ter gut­ting out a bronze-medal fin­ish in the women’s 3,000 me­tres at the Rich­mond Olympic Oval.

“It just gave me goose­bumps, just lis­ten­ing to the crowd,” Groves said.

“I’ve never re­ally ex­pe­ri­enced the crowd that loud for Canada. I’ve raced in all places where it’s been that loud, but never for Canada, so that was re­ally won­der­ful. It was deaf­en­ing, just deaf­en­ing.”

Czech Martina Sab­likova claimed the gold and Stephanie Beck­ert of Ger­many the sil­ver while Hughes, of Glen Sut­ton, Que., par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sec­ond-last race of her ca­reer, was fifth. Win­nipeg’s Cindy Klassen, a five­time medal­list at the 2006 Turin Games, fin­ished 14th.

“I got to watch my train­ing part­ner, my team­mate and my friend skate the 3,000-me­tre race of her life and come in third and win the bronze medal and it was beau­ti­ful,” Hughes gushed af­ter­ward. “It was a great day for our team.” Out­side, the per­sis­tent Van­cou­ver rain of the last few days gave way to bril­liant sun­shine, help­ing to soften some of the deeper fur­rows in Canada’s col­lec­tive brow af­ter an Olympic start that has al­ready been plagued by more than its fair share of bad weather and bad luck.

An hour’s drive away, Mother Na­ture was play­ing fa­mil­iar havoc at Whistler’s Olympic Vil­lage, where no less a dig­ni­tary than Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean got a first­hand taste of just how wet a B.C. win­ter can get.

“I don’t mind the rain,” Jean told a group of um­brella-cov­ered ath­letes who were gath­ered to talk about the im­por­tance of the Olympic spirit.

It was a les­son not lost on JeanPhilippe LeGuel­lec.

The 24-year-old biath­lete from Que­bec City bat­tled through rain, sleet and then wet snow to fin­ish sixth in the men’s biathlon 10-kilo­me­tre sprint, a re­sult of­fi­cials called one of Canada’s best in years.

“All in all it was an awe­some race, and I’m re­ally happy,” the soak­ing-wet LeGuel­lec said af­ter strug­gling through a snow squall in the last kilo­me­tre of his race.

He might have placed higher — per­haps even in the medals — ex­cept for one missed shot in the sec­ond round of shoot­ing, but LeGuel­lec and his coach billed the fin­ish as be­ing among the best re­sults in the his­tory of Cana­dian male biathlon racing at the Olympics.

And it came de­spite some of the most chal­leng­ing con­di­tions the rac­ers have ever seen.

In the Cal­laghan Val­ley near Whistler, where the nordic, biathlon, nordic-com­bined and ski-jump­ing events are held, the snow was packed down but high hu­mid­ity made the course slip­pery, forc­ing skiers to put up with a lack of train­ing runs and a track that was not to their lik­ing.

“Con­di­tions here are hard, they’re chang­ing all the time,” said cross-coun­try skier Ge­orge Grey.

Women’s down­hill ski train­ing had to be can­celled yet again, along with the su­per-com­bined race that had been sched­uled for Sun­day. Men’s down­hiller Manuel Os­bornePar­adis, 26, re­mained the odds-on best bet for Canada’s next gold, as­sum­ing weather al­lowed the event to pro­ceed to­day.

The fore­cast for Whistler this week pre­dicts mostly sunny skies, but the day­time high is ex­pected in the range of 4 C, not the av­er­age -3 C nor­mal at this time of year. In Van­cou­ver, highs are pre­dicted to reach up to a balmy 14 C. Or­ga­niz­ers re­mained pos­i­tive, de­spite the ris­ing mer­cury, and pointed to the suc­cess­ful women’s mogul event Satur­day night, where Cana­dian Jen­nifer Heil claimed the sil­ver medal.

“Mother Na­ture is start­ing to smile on us,” said Re­nee SmithValade, VANOC’s vice-pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “ We’re con­fi­dent that the alpine events will go ahead.”

To bor­row the Olympic ver­nac­u­lar, the 2010 Games didn’t ex­actly get off to a clean start. The grim for­tunes be­gan with the shock­ing fa­tal crash Fri­day of a 21-year-old Ge­or­gian luger, a tragedy that put a dam­per on Fri­day’s open­ing cer­e­monies. A mal­func­tion with the Olympic caul­dron at the most crit­i­cal mo­ment of the pro­ceed­ings didn’t help mat­ters.

Satur­day, pro­test­ers ran riot in down­town Van­cou­ver, smash­ing store win­dows and clash­ing with po­lice. That night, Heil won sil­ver, but had dif­fi­culty con­ceal­ing the fact she’d had her heart set on giv­ing her coun­try its first gold medal on home soil.

Sun­day, there re­mained lin­ger­ing headaches from Fri­day’s spec­ta­cle, in­clud­ing ques­tions about a short­age of French-lan­guage con­tent and com­plaints from spec­ta­tors about the chain-link fence sur­round­ing the out­door Olympic flame in down­town Van­cou­ver.

The Cana­dian Press

Alexan­dre Bilodeau cel­e­brates his gold medal win in the men’s mogul at Cy­press Moun­tain in Van­cou­ver, B.C., Sun­day, at the 2010 Van­cou­ver Olympic Win­ter Games.

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