Sochi 2014, one year to go: Canada aims to continue owning the Olympic podium
If world championship medals translate to Sochi gold, the Maple Leaf will fly high one year from now
'We know that improving on the performance in Vancouver will be a significant accomplishment,' says Anne Merklinger, head of Canada's Own the Podium program. 'Our public goal is to contend to be No. 1. We want to be one of the first nations that maintains or improves after a home Games.'
Photograph by: Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald
VANCOUVER — Any chart detailing the medal rankings of countries in the Winter Olympics four years after they hosted a Games will show a graph that looks much like the schematic for an alpine run or a sliding track.
That is to say, a trajectory that slides down hill.
Past history would suggest that Canada, after a medal chart-topping haul of 14 golds at Vancouver 2010, the most ever by any country, isn’t likely to match that number, or the 26 total medals – third overall — earned at Vancouver and Whistler, at the Sochi Olympics one year from now.
Except that there is some recent evidence, namely medal totals from winter sport world championships since 2011, that indicates Canada could at least maintain its prominence at Sochi, if not extend it.
According to an Own the Podium chart, which captures the most recent world championship results between 2011 and 2013 for the 98 medal events on the 2014 Sochi schedule, Canada leads the world in both gold medals (20) and total medals (38).
Norway is second in total gold with 13 and third for total medals with 28. Germany is third with 11 gold and second in total medals with 32.
“We know that improving on the performance in Vancouver will be a significant accomplishment,” says Anne Merklinger, head of OTP. “Our public goal is to contend to be No. 1. We want to be one of the first nations that maintains or improves after a home Games.”
Actually, Canada did just that once before, four years after the 1988 Calgary Olympics, although they had nowhere to go but up. In ’88, Canada became the first Winter Olympics host country not to win a gold medal and earned just five medals overall, two silver and three bronze. At the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, Canada won two gold, three silver and two bronze.
But the U.S. in 1984, France in ’94, Japan in 2002, the U.S. again in 2006 and Italy in 2010 all saw drops in the number of golds and total medals won from four years earlier on home soil. Japan went from five gold and 10 total medals at Nagano in ’98 to zero and two four years later; Italy dropped to one gold and five total medals in 2010 after collecting five and 11, respectively, at Turin.
Only Norway, which won the same number of golds (10) and only one less total medal (25) in 1998, managed to buck the trend.
Fuelling the Canadian optimism is the addition of 12 new events at Sochi. In several of them, Canadians have already been on the top of the podium at world championships or X Games, with men’s snowboard slopestyle star Mark McMorris of Regina, women’s snowboard slopestyle competitor Spencer O’Brien of North Vancouver, ski slopestyle’s Kaya Turski of Montreal and ski halfpipe athletes Mike Riddle and Roz Groenwoud, Alberta natives now living in Squamish, leading the way.
“No question we’re quite comfortable with where we’re at right now,” says Peter Judge, who as CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, will be sending 26 athletes to Sochi in moguls, aerials, ski cross, halfpipe and slopestyle.
Turski, Riddle and Groenewoud should all be medal contenders in Sochi, as will reigning ski cross world champion Kelsey Serwa.
And not only is 2010 men’s moguls gold medallist Alex Bilodeau back in form, but another mogul basher from Quebec, Mikael Kingsbury, only last week had an amazing 19-event podium streak broken. And it included a phenomenal 12 wins. The Dufour-Lapointe sisters, Justine and Chloe, are also consistent medal threats in women’s moguls.
“I would honestly say I see better numbers (in Canada’s overall medal total), in large part because of the new disciplines, which we are obviously good at,” says Judge, who always keeps a close eye on a wide variety of sports.
“I don’t know about the same gold medal count, that’s an onerous ask, but it’s possible and I think we’ll see an increase in our total medal count.”
The one note of caution is that ski halfpipe and slopestyle and snowboard slopestyle are evolving and progressing at a remarkably fast rate. Riddle, Groenewoud and Turski are only in their mid-20s, but they’re being pushed by a whole new crop of fearless teenage kids, from Norway to Japan to the U.S., who are performing huge, multi-revolution tricks.
“That’s the double-edged sword of the new disciplines,” says Judge. “There’s a phenomenal opportunity for growth ... and a lot of countries are getting involved. The dynamics of those disciplines is that there can be pretty significant change over a relatively short period of time and the impact that investment in those disciplines can have is quite profound.”
Steven Hills, the Canadian Snowboard Federation boss, sees the same dynamics.
“With the skill level of the 15- and 16-year-old kids ... how can you predict what the next big trick is? How far can the human body go in terms of inverted manoeuvres. Guys are doing triple corks now in slopestyle. Can you do four? I don’t know if the body can do it.”
Canada has been able to maintain its winter sport position for a couple of reasons. Funding from OTP and the Canadian Olympic Committee has remained strong, particularly for targeted sports and athletes.
And some of Canada’s best from 2010 – bobsledder Kaillie Humphries, speedskating’s Christine Nesbitt and Charles Hamelin, snowboardcross star Maëlle Ricker and ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir – are still in their prime and at the top of their games.
But many rival nations, including Britain and Russia, have borrowed liberally from the OTP model. In fact, the Russians went out and hired one of the key architects of OTP, Cathy Priestner-Allinger, in 2011 to co-ordinate their programs after a disastrous performance at Vancouver when they earned just three gold and 15 medals overall.
The Russians are funnelling millions of dollars into their various sport federations and have had a couple of breakthroughs, notably in men’s skeleton and cross-country skiing.
They have also gone out and recruited top notch coaches like Germany’s Wolfgang Pischler in biathlon, Switzerland’s Thomas Lips in curling and Canadians Pierre Lueders (bobsleigh) and Steve Shearing and Jim Schiman (moguls). And they’ve fast-tracked citizenship for some key imports, including short track speed skater Ahn Hyun-soo, a triple Olympic champion from South Korea who now goes by Viktor Ahn. Last weekend, he helped the Russian men win the 5,000-metre relay at a World Cup in Sochi.
But they are reportedly still hopelessly disorganized in some sports and outsiders say the OTP model won’t have been in place long enough to help the Russians reach their stated target of 15 gold medals in Sochi.
“There’s a huge fire hose of money spitting into the system, but there’s a lot of spillage going on around the outside, money that’s not being spent in an efficient manner,” says Judge.
He says the Russians’ target of 15 golds “is based on ego.” The big payoff for the Russians might not come, he says, until the 2018 Olympics in Korea.
In addition to freestyle, bobsleigh, figure skating and hockey – both our men’s and women’s squads will try to repeat as gold medallists in Sochi – Canada is hoping for payoff in a couple of sports that came up empty in Vancouver/Whistler.
The luge team won two medals at last weekend’s world championships in Whistler, including a silver in the new-for-2014 discipline of team relay, and was top five in all four disciplines.
And male cross-country skiers Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Len Valjas have moved into the upper echelon in their sport. Kershaw and Harvey won world championship team sprint gold in 2011 and Kersahw was second overall on the World Cup circuit in 2011-2012.
“Contending for No. 1 (at Sochi) is a lofty objective, a big objective,” says Merklinger. “But we’ve seen in high performance sports since Vancouver a culture that permeates through our Olympic and Paralympic sports organizations of athletes and coaches wanting to win, believing they can win. And they are winning.
“We’re right in the middle of a critical assessment period right now with several world championships either just having been held or about to be held. These are the rest tests and measuring sticks ... but we feel that every one of our targeted sport organizations have all the resources they need. We won’t have any regrets.”
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