Canada looks to ‘maintain the gain’ in Sochi

``We want to be a contender for the total medals championship and to be number one,'' Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut said. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
January 28, 2014, 3:46 PM

CALGARY — The goal is the same, but it will be harder to achieve without the advantage of home ice and snow.

Winning more medals than any other country is Canada’s objective at the Sochi Olympics, as it was four years ago in Vancouver.

Canada’s 26 medals was good for third overall in 2010, but winning the gold-medal count with a record 14 raised the stakes for Sochi.

Canadians know now their country can be the best in the world in winter sport. The pressure is on to at least “maintain the gain.”

“We want to be a contender for the total medals championship and to be number one,” Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut says. “We have tried to do everything to get prepared for this incredible and ambitious goal. We love ambitious goals.”

A host country beating its medal count at the following Games is rare.

The boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics, the dissolving of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany skews statistics, but never in the history of the Summer Games and only three times has a Winter Games host country won more medals at the next Games.

The last country to do so happens to be Canada with five medals in Calgary in 1988, followed by seven in Albertville, France, in 1992.

But 221-member Canadian team could very well beat its 2010 medal count because there are 36 more medals to be won in Sochi than there were in Vancouver.

Of the 12 events making their Olympic debut in Sochi, Canada is a medal contender in men’s and women’s freestyle halfpipe and slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle, the luge relay and the figure skating team event.

Because of the new sports, it’s conceivable Canada could bring home more medals home from Sochi, but not win the overall medal race.

“I would expect Vancouver medal count or even better based on Own The Podium funding that’s gone in and other sports performing this year,” Canadian flag-bearer Hayley Wickenheiser says.

“It is the Olympic Games and anything can happen. I expect to have a dominating performance from Canada again.”

The United States topped the overall medal count with 37 in 2010. Germany did it with just 29 in 2006. What it will take to be No. 1 in Sochi is a moving target. One source has said Own The Podium’s internal goal is 32 medals, including 13 gold.

The United States, Germany, Norway and host Russia will be Canada’s chief rivals in the medal race. After a dismal performance by their own standards in 2010, Russia intends to win the gold-medal race and finish top three overall.

“The trends are really clear. They’re getting better and better every year in many aspects of their performance,” Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger says. “We expect they’ll be the real deal.”

Canada and the U.S. tied for second in medals won in 2013 winter sport world championships with 29 apiece.

Norway collected 34 medals, including 17 gold, to top both columns. Germany earned 26 world championship medals and the Russians 23. Canada and Russia tied for fourth in gold medals with seven each.

While the Canadian men’s hockey team will have a huge following at home as it attempts to defend the gold medal, it will be the freestyle skiers, short-track speedskaters and snowboarders driving the medal count in Sochi.

The sight of Regina snowboarder Mark McMorris fracturing his rib at the recent X Games is chilling for Canada. McMorris is a gold-medal favourite in the new sport of slopestyle. He still intends to compete in Sochi.

Unlike the U.S., Canada doesn’t have a deep well of medal contenders across all sports. Any injuries in these final days of competition and training will dent Canada’s medal prospects.

“The issue is if an athlete goes down, we’re really thin in terms of having another athlete ready to go,” Merklinger says. “In the United States, when Lindsey Vonn has an injury they have another one who just emerges. We don’t have that.”

Canadian taxpayers are biggest funder of their Olympians’ exploits. Cognizant of the country’s sport euphoria coming out of 2010, the federal government hasn’t just maintained, but has augmented sport funding.

Own The Podium, the $117-million business plan to get Canada’s athletes on the podium in Vancouver, continues to oversee athletes’ competitive lives between Games.

OTP now allocates about $62 million of federal government money to summer, winter and Paralympic sport annually.

In consultation with each sport federation, OTP determines which athletes have medal potential and directs those dollars accordingly. The money pays for things like coaching, training, competition and travel costs as well as the medical support teams.

But the country’s investment goes far beyond OTP.

The federal government has spent $150 million on high-performance sport since 2010, compared to $125 million in the quadrennial prior to Vancouver, according to the office of the Minister of State for Sport, Bal Gosal.

In addition to OTP funding, there is the Athletes Assistance Program, which provides up to $18,000 to approximately 1,800 “carded athletes” annually in direct money. The AAP funding increased 121 per cent from 2003-04 to 2013-14, according to the minister’s office.

The federal government also provides money for Canada to host international events such as World Cups and world championships.

So the feet of Canada’s sport system will be held to the fire in Sochi. No one in it wants to lose the interest and goodwill of those watching at home.

A recent Harris-Decima poll provided to The Canadian Press suggested that 58 per cent of those surveyed would follow the Olympic Games very closely or somewhat closely.

Even though Canada topped the gold-medal count in 2010, sport leaders haven’t adopted a gold standard for Sochi. “Every medal matters” because if Canadians feel they can celebrate bronze as much as they do gold, they’ll feel they got bang for their buck.

“It’s a significant investment for the Government of Canada,” Merklinger says. “They are the largest investor in high-performance sport. “It is a balance of making sure we are ambitious enough in terms of the performance targets that are established collectively and at the same time that we’re not perceived as failing in delivering on the Government of Canada’s investments.

“We need to perform well in Sochi. We know we’re under the microscope.”

The importance of role models for youth, inspiring a country to get off the couch and get moving plus Canada’s image abroad are the reasons the federal government continues to invest in high-performance sport, Aubut says.

It’s the Canadian Olympic Committee’s job to prepare athletes for the Games environment and look after their needs and wants on the ground during the Games. Sochi apparently set a new benchmark in terms of logistics.

“There’s no doubt this will be the most complex Games ever,” Aubut says. “First of all the distance, the difference of the country. It’s not London where everybody will speak English.

“We are in Russia. It’s the first time they’ve hosted something really, really big. It will be challenging, complex and also expensive at the same time.”

The COC pays for its responsibilities through corporate sponsorships and launched an aggressive campaign after the 2012 Summer Games in London with the goal of raising $100 million over a four-year period. In December, the COC vowed to divert $37 million of it to OTP.

The COC has struck deals in recent months with companies such as Oakley, Adidas, Canadian Tire and BMW. There’s also an agreement with Hockey Canada in which half of the money generated from Canadian hockey team Olympic merchandise will be directed towards other sport federations.

While investment in Canada’s Olympians remains high, there are gaps in the system. The freestyle, luge, skeleton and bobsleigh teams have lost their team sponsors since 2010. That money is used to develop the next generation of athletes.

The COC started paying bonus money to athletes — $20,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze — at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

The bill was $515,000 in Beijing, $1.7 million in 2010 and $700,000 for the 2012 Summer Games in London.

Sochi will be the second Olympic Games that coaches will be financially rewarded when their athletes step on the podium: $10,000 per gold, $7,500 for silver and $5,000 for bronze. The COC paid out $107,500 to coaches in London.

Canada won’t have home-country pressure in Sochi, but these Winter Games will be test how quickly Canada’s Olympians can master their unfamiliar situations and surroundings.

“Sochi creates a very challenging environment for every nation going to the Games, except obviously for the Russians,” Merklinger says. “One of the keys to performance and winning medals in Sochi will be how well our Canadian athletes, coaches and sport medicine providers adapt to Sochi and are resilient.”

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