Monday September 01, 2014

Defining success for Canada at Sochi


View from the Cheap Seats is kind of an extension of the newsroom. Whenever our three regular reporters, Calvin Daniels, Thom Barker and Randy Brenzen are in the building together, it is frequently a site of heated debate. This week: Will Canada match its best showing ever from the 2010 Winter Olympics this year at Sochi?

Four key golds

Canada at the Olympics is usually the signal for a couple of weeks of disappointment.

Admittedly we rarely go into the summer Olympics with a lot of true medal threats, and often in prestige, high profile summer sports, basketball, volleyball, the 100-metres, we aren’t exactly world powers, the Ben Johnson debacle notwithstanding.

On the winter front Canada should be, based on geography, among the world’s best in many of the events.

We live in a country where for much of six months we can cross country ski by stepping out our front doors, although we don’t really stand out in the cross country ski events.

But we are competitive in snowboarding, several ski events, figure skating, curling, hockey and can be in the hunt even in sports such as bobsled.

In 2010, Canada had an amazing winter Olympics capturing 26 medals, aided no doubt by the fact it was hosted in Vancouver.

Canada, with 26 medals, surpassed their previous best medal performance of 2006, where athletes won 24 medals (including seven gold), the most medals the nation has ever won at a non-boycotted Olympics (Summer or Winter).

Canada also finished with the record for most gold medals at a single Winter Olympics, with 14, one more than the previous record of 13 set by the former Soviet Union in 1976 and Norway in 2002.

To expect a repeat performance on foreign soil might be asking a bit much from our athletes, although in 2010 the Canadian Olympic Committee had initially wanted to top the Olympics in medals which they had anticipated would have taken 30-plus medals, a goal later abandoned as the event neared. The 26 medals ended up being third overall, with the United States topping the pile with 37.

There are more medals to be won in Sochi. Twelve events make this year, and Canada is expected to be a medal contender in at least some of those, such as men’s and women’s freestyle halfpipe and slopestyle, and snowboard slopestyle.

With the new events, and a better track record from Vancouver, 30 medals might be reasonable. The golds are a bit harder to bank on, although in terms of the general Canadian psyche the key is winning a specific four.

As Canadians we hold the men’s and women’s gold medals in curling and hockey as critical. Anything less than hearing our national anthem playing at the end of competition in those events is seen as a massive underachievement, if not outright failure.

We can feel pride in a bronze by the men’s bobsled team of Lyndon Rush, Lascelles Brown, Chris Le Bihan and David Bissett in Vancouver, but when the team of Cheryl Bernard, Susan O’Connor, Carolyn Darbyshire, Cori Bartel and Kristie Moore missed gold in women’s curling it was an affront to our expected dominance in a sport we believe ourselves the best, just as it is with hockey.

Ultimately I expect Canada to continue to be a Winter Olympics force in Sochi, but the ultimate success is less about total medals and much more about the aforementioned four key golds.

— Calvin Daniels

Middle of the top

This is truly one of those questions the answer to which is going to amount to little more than a wild guess dressed up with some pseudo-intelligent analysis. Like all good prognosticators, however, I will not be deterred by futility and, if right, I will claim it as proof of my psychic abilities. If wrong, I will act like I never wrote this column.

The first issue to deal with is whether Canada’s stellar performance at the Vancouver Olympics was an aberration or an indication that our competitiveness has improved. Vancouver was far and away our best performance with 14 gold medals (ranked first) and 26 overall (ranked third).

Overall, that’s not inconsistent with the last five winter games (1994 – 2010) where we finished on average fifth. The gold count, however, was truly extraordinary doubling our best ever previous showing.

Of course, 2010 came at the end of a five-year, $110 million program called “Own the Podium,” (OTP) designed specifically to bolster our chances for at-home success. Does anyone remember OTP? Before the 2010 games its presence was ubiquitous. This time, I think I’ve heard it mentioned once. Plus, we were on home snow/ice, although that’s not necessarily an advantage. In 1988 at Calgary, the Canadian team failed to capture a single gold and wound up with only five medals overall.

Still, compared to the average fifth place finish of the past five winter games, our average in the previous five (1976 – 1992) was 11th. Improved? Yes, but improved enough to repeat? Probably not.

Let us not forget, we have some serious powerhouse nations to contend with, including the host country Russia, the United States, a unified Germany and the all-time medal leader Norway.

The second issue is what constitutes repeating our Vancouver performance. We may well end up with a few more medals because there are numerous new events and Canada is sending its largest team ever, but the most important thing is the ranking.

My prediction is Canada will finish in the middle of the top group of countries, around fourth or fifth place, with 20-plus medals, but a more traditional distribution, heavier on the silver and bronze than gold.

That’s what my brain says. My heart says: Go Canada!

— Thom Barker

No repeat

Canada surprised the world, and itself, in 2010 when it hosted the Winter Olympics, by winning 14 gold medals; more than any other country in 2010.

The 14 gold medals also gave Canada first place on the medal table despite having just the third highest total overall (The United States had 37 medals while Germany had 30).

Now the question is “Will Canada repeat it’s performance in the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi?”

To be honest, I don’t think we will. Last time around it seemed as if the planets were aligned. We hosted meaning we had competitors in each and every sport.

Those competitors also put together their best performances of their careers on tracks and courses that they had a chance to practice on for months before.

In Sochi, however, the Canadian athletes will not have any advantages. Those advantages, instead, will be given to the Russian Olympians.

You also have to look at the fact that, in 2010, Canada was favoured to win medals in sports that involved us throwing ourselves down icy slopes (bobsledding, luge and skeleton).

Now our “down the icy slope” athletes are struggling while the Americans, Russians and Latvians continue to get better.

We’ll definitely medal in both men’s and women’s hockey as well as curling, but will Canada repeat its medal performance of 2010?

No, we will not. However, I do hope I’m dead wrong.

— Randy Brenzen



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