PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – By and large Canada’s athletes delivered in impressive fashion at the Pyeongchang Games, a best-ever Winter Olympics haul of 29 medals evidence of that, a total amassed in spite of men’s and women’s curling losses that damaged the national psyche.
Aberrations happen, and over 16 days of quality performance, there were far more standouts than slip-ups.
Mikael Kingsbury rose above nearly unbearable pressure to convert, collecting the first of seven medals from the freestyle ski team. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir performed so brilliantly even ice dancing’s corrupt judging system couldn’t cheat them. Kim Boutin and Samuel Girard emerged from the nurturing shadows of Marianne St-Gelais and Charles Hamelin to become short-track stars. Ted-Jan Bloemen set an Olympic record to slay Sven Kramer, long-track speed skating’s most intimidating beast. Alex Gough and the luge team made a long-deserved breakthrough.
Canadians have now won 80 medals over the past three Winter Olympics, a spike helped by an Own The Podium program that not only provided better resourcing for medal-potential athletes, but also changed the mentality around the Games in the country by making results the priority.
“We are now proudly in the top group, growing in strength and contending for No. 1,” said Tricia Smith, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
Added Anne Merklinger, OTP’s chief executive officer: “We felt confident that we were heading into these Games with the potential to have our best Games ever. That’s what has happened. There’s never a number (target for medals) we set, we want to constantly improve. We improved from Sochi, we’ve improved from Vancouver, very quickly we’ll look at where we stand relative to 2022.”
The next steps get a lot harder.
The haul in Pyeongchang left Canada third on the 2018 medals table both in terms of golds won and total collected. Germany won 14 gold medals among its total of 31 while Norway – yes, seriously, Norway – established a Winter Games record with 39 medals, 14 of them gold, largely on the back of its cross-country dominance. The 14 medals it claimed in the sport broke the Soviet Union’s record haul from the 1988 Calgary Games.
“I’d like to personally know more about what Norway is up to,” quipped Chris Overholt, the COC’s chief executive officer. “They just had a great Games.”
So too did Canada, but now the Winter Games focus shifts forward to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the still un-awarded 2026 Olympics, for which Calgary is considering a bid.
A significant transition is coming, with some of Canada’s first generation of OTP athletes set to move on after these Games.
Figure skating, coming off a best-ever four medal Olympics, will be hit particularly hard with Virtue and Moir, bronze-medallist pair Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and three-time men’s world champion Patrick Chan all set to walk away. Hamelin and St-Gelais plan to compete at next month’s world championships and then call it quits. Others among the 225-athlete team are sure to change course, too.
“Our rebuild is starting already,” said Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s high-performance director. “We know we have some skaters that won’t be going to worlds and are going to be moving on. We’re still going to worlds with a strong team but there’s time for a lot of our up-and-comers to step up. …
“You know, Scott’s the one who has really been the gel for this team since 2011 and his character brings a lot of emotion, as we see to everything,” he added later. “He’s passionate and I know that’s going to rub off on some of our guys.”
That of course is the hope, and the Canadian Olympic squad included 110 rookies, with Pyeongchang merely a building block on a trajectory toward a podium finish in Beijing 2022 for some of them.
In that sense a key change in OTP’s strategy has been expanding its horizon to eight years rather than four in the pursuit of performance continuity.
“Before Vancouver the idea really was Own The Podium and really focused on that podium and soon we realized you need that base to grow if you’re going to continue to build these champions,” explained Smith. “The NextGen program has been a real focus and … it’s extremely essential that focus is well identified and that we’re resourcing that focus, as well.”
Added Eric Myles, the COC’s executive director, sport: “Yes we have incredible performers, four-time, three-time Olympians on the team but at the same time I look at (Boutin), I’m pretty sure we’ll be looking forward to seeing her in four years, and many other great performers. … It’s more than just a four-year cycle, it’s already on, it’s not something we’re just starting at these Games. I’m not worried about that part.”
Another factor is what allows countries to finish high on the medals table is depth of talent. Not every athlete is going to perform at their best on a given day, no matter how prepared. The wrong wind gust can ruin an event, the way it for the women’s slopestyle snowboarders. Someone else can have the performance of their lives and sneak on to a podium.
Boutin and Girard stepped up when St-Gelais and Hamelin skated into bad luck at the Gangneung Ice Arena. Snowboarders Max Parrot and Mark McMorris landed on the men’s slopestyle podium when winds took out Sebastien Toutant and Tyler Nicholson. The reverse held true in big air, when Toutant won gold and Parrot and McMorris couldn’t land their jumps.
That’s why OTP will sort through not only the medallists from Pyeongchang, but also closely examine the 28 finishes between fourth and eighth place by Canadians to seek potential for Beijing.
“When we’re in a good position as a country, we’ve got four, five, six medal-potential athletes so if one or two of those can convert, we benefit from that,” said Merklinger. “There weren’t any sports that won medals here that we hadn’t identified as having medal potential. That’s a really important metric for us as an organization, to make sure we haven’t missed anyone based on our analysis, based on evidence of medal potential. No we go back and we start over again in terms who has emerged with top-fives, top-eights for 2022 and 2026, because now we’re talking about the eight-year horizon.”
A satisfying moment for the Canadian Olympic Committee surely came during its closing news conference, when a Wall Street Journal reporter asked about what had led to the country’s Olympic success and what could the United States, which largely had a miserable Games, learn from it.
Overholt politely and modestly tried to play down Canada’s edge over its neighbours to the south and in politically correct fashion said the COC’s goal primary goal was to give the country’s athletes “the best possible opportunity to be the best they can be in their moment.”
But the success in Pyeongchang didn’t happen by accident and it won’t continue without further work. Other countries are coming, and there are still two of them to still chase down.
“Performance, as we’ve seen at these Games, begets further interest, further investments, further passion on the part of Canadians and all the partner stakeholders in that equation are fuelled by that,” said Overholt. “Vancouver was an inflection point. We’ve built on that wonderfully and we intend to do that going forward.”
Norway, consider yourself warned.