There are still two years to go before the curtain goes up on the 2016 Summer Olympics, but many of Canada’s top athletes are already on the road to Rio and this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key stop.
For athletes such as decathlete Damian Warner, rugby sevens captain John Moonlight, and swimmer Ryan Cochrane, the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow mark not only the biggest event on this year’s sports calendar, but another chance to gain valuable multisport experience ahead of Rio.
“Our little tag line for these Games is ‘The road to Rio goes through Glasgow and Toronto (and the 2015 Pan American Games),”‘ said Brian MacPherson, CEO of Commonwealth Games Canada. “This is where future Canadian sport stars are born.”
Trap shooter Susan Nattrass, a six-time Olympian, will carry Canada’s flag into the opening ceremonies on July 23 at Celtic Park — normally the home ground of the Glasgow Celtics. She’ll lead a Canadian team of 265 athletes, the largest-ever for a Commonwealth Games outside of Canada.
"In our statistics, 70 per cent of our team going to Glasgow this year will end up on Canada's Pan Am Games team next year, and 50 per cent will end up on Canada's Olympic team in Rio," MacPherson said.
Canada is fielding its top team in every sport except judo, and the squad includes numerous world and Olympic medallists such as Cochrane, Warner, heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton, high jumper Derek Drouin, divers Meagan Benfeito, Roseline Filion and Jennifer Abel, mountain biker Catharine Pendrel, track cyclist Zach Bell and boxer Ariane Fortin.
The Canadian team's goal is to reclaim its traditional spot among the top three in the medal table, after finishing fourth four years ago in New Delhi behind Australia, England and host India. Canada claimed 76 total medals in 2010, including 26 gold, 17 silver and 33 bronze.
"It's ambitious but it's also realistic," Chantal Petitclerc, Canada's chef de mission in Glasgow, said of the team's goal to finish in the top three. "This team is very strong.
"The Commonwealth Games deserve to really have their place in the importance of bringing our athletes to those (world and Olympic) podiums. We are sending our best athletes, and with Pan Ams next year and Rio after that, I think it sets up a really, really great calendar for our athletes on the way to Rio."
All 18 of the medals Canada captured at the London Olympics belonged to athletes who had competed at the Commonwealth Games.
Canada could win medals in virtually every sport in Glasgow, with a good chunk of podium performances coming from its 50-member track and field team and its swim team of 33 athletes.
Warner, who won bronze at last summer's world championships, is the favourite to win decathlon gold in Glasgow, but said he still needs more multisport events under his belt before Rio.
"I've been lucky enough to go to the Olympics and world championships twice, but at the same time, I haven't been doing the sport for too long, so I still need all the experience I can get," he said. "So it's great to go to competitions like this where I'm are favoured to win, and it is big-scale but not as big as the Olympics."
The Games feature some 4,500 athletes competing in 17 sports over 11 days. It's the only fully integrated major Games, with 22 Paralympic events in five sports.
All of the sports will be on the Rio Olympic schedule except lawn bowls, netball and squash.
Squash player Shawn DeLierre said he cherishes the chance to compete for Canada on a multisport stage.
"It's for the country, it's for the beauty of a Games. In some people's minds, the Games are massive," he said. "It's one of those things where you'd say at the end of your career, 'I did all those.' And people are like, 'Oh amazing. That's where we could recognize you."'
"To go set foot out there, to put on the clothing, to get with everybody else and go to battle, it's a lot of fun," he added. "Not just for squash -- every other sport. There is a commonized feeling of strength and good spirit in the air."
Glasgow, a city of just over half a million, has rolled out the red carpet for the Commonwealth countries. The land of kilts and castles has embraced the Games. There have been no controversies about construction delays. Tickets are affordable starting at 15 pounds (C$27). Many events are sold out.
"That's an anomaly compared to past Games, a reflection on the community support over there," MacPherson said.
The venues includes storied Hampden Park -- Scotland's national soccer stadium -- which has undergone a major facelift and will host track and field and the closing ceremonies, and Ibrox Stadium, normally home to the Rangers and the site of rugby sevens.
Many of the world's top athletes will be competing, including English track star Mo Farah, a double world and Olympic gold medallist in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.
"These Games are important and highly competitive," Petitclerc said. "It's a great time in the calendar, it's also in a great spot in Europe where many athletes already are there, and competing. And also it's kind of surfing on the London (Olympic) experience. Great Britain, they're still so enthusiastic, they're still surfing on that good vibe.
"The Games are so well-organized, the facilities are top notch, and people want to go."
Canadian Cam Levins will line up against Farah.
"The Commonwealth Games are really important to me, there's obviously a lot of history of some great track races through the years," said Levins.
"I think if you can do well at the Commonwealth Games, it can be a really good stepping stone towards the world championships and the Olympics. They are a great opportunity for an athlete like me who's up and coming still to try and make that jump to the top tier. If I have a good result, it builds confidence going into (next summer's) world championships and ultimately the Olympics in 2016."
Hamilton hosted the first Commonwealth Games -- known then as the British Empire Games -- in 1930. Canada has hosted them three times since, in 1954 in Vancouver, in 1978 in Edmonton and in 1994 in Victoria.
Hamilton applied to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games but lost to the New Delhi bid. Halifax withdraw a bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.