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Scott Russell - Tuesday Feb. 11, 2014 20:50

The X-Factor of Canadian success

Field of Play blog: Canada owning the podium, but timing has helped

Gaetan Boucher in 1984
Canadian speed skater Gaetan Boucher displays his three medals won during the 1984 Winter Olympics. Boucher wonders how Canada will attract new athletes to traditional disciplines like his. (Staff/AFP/Getty Images)

So far, Canada is doing exactly what it set out to do at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
It is effectively claiming ownership of the podium.

This is by far the fastest start in Canadian Olympic history in terms of medal production, and the totals are climbing at a dizzying rate. Remember, if you will, that a grand sum of 26 medals were produced at the home Games in Vancouver, while 14 golds represented an all-time record for any country at a single Games.

On the surface this looks like Canadian athletes are in for a bonanza in the south of Russia, given that there are still a dozen days of competition to unfold. And the hockey and curling successes Canadians can traditionally count on are only beginning tournament play.

This all looks very rosy, and well it should, but an analysis of where Canadians are hitting the mark in Sochi reveals that these revolutionary Games are so far favouring maple leaf men and women in both content and timing.

New sports start early

The debut sports of slopestyle skiing and snowboarding have occurred at the beginning of competition. So has the team figure skating event, for which Canada fielded the largest team in Sochi. There are 17 Canadian figure skaters here in Russia and they still have room to prove themselves in the traditional disciplines of singles, pairs and the ice dance.

Still to come are snowboard cross and ski cross and they should also yield strong Canadian results. Short track speed skating continues to be a positive for Canada, what with the early signs of dominance flashed by Charles Hamelin as well as the strong performances of the Canadian women including double silver medallist from Vancouver Marianne St-Gelais.

Still, all of the medals that Canada has scored to date have come from sports which have come onto the Olympic program since the Albertville Games in 1992.

Conversely, the long standing sports such as alpine and cross-country skiing as well as long track speed skating have seen Canadians struggle in the early days. These are events which afford the bulk of medal opportunities at any Olympics because there are races of multiple distances involving myriad disciplines of the same sport.

Continuing struggles in traditional sports

The bottom line is that Canada is out of the gate very quickly in Sochi and that’s good news.

But cause for concern is the drought in alpine skiing, which has seen Canadian athletes fail to win a medal since the Lillehammer Games of 1994 when Ed Podivinsky claimed downhill bronze. The chances to erase that dry spell are rapidly disappearing in Sochi.

Long track speed skating has produced 33 medals in Canadian Olympic history, more than any other sport at the Winter Games. But there is the daunting prospect here that Canadian athletes could be shut out.

That worries Gaetan Boucher, who won three Olympic medals including two golden trips to the podium at Sarajevo in 1984, while inspiring a generation of speed skating greatness in Canada.

“Now there are so many sports,” Boucher shrugged. “And the X-Games sports are accessible. It’s a lot more fun going down a hill and doing jumps than it is skating in a straight line into the wind when it’s 30 degrees below zero.”

The problem, as Boucher sees it, is that not enough emerging talent finds its way to his sport because of a lack of facilities, which are admittedly highly specialized. “We need a covered oval in the east,” he reckoned. “We’ve been trying for years but it’s never worked. It’s very expensive to build but we need to get more good athletes into the sport.”

Building lasting traditions

Still, Canadian fans should take heart that in the X-Games sports their athletes are excelling. It is obviously an area of growth on the Olympic stage and therefore with time should prove to be grounds for building lasting traditions.

Consider the fact that the Netherlands is alongside Canada at the top of the medal standings, and yet all of their medals have come in a single sport, that being long track speed skating. It is where they concentrate their efforts. The Norwegians, who are also having success, tend to score most of their results in cross country skiing and biathlon.

Yes, Canada is succeeding at owning the podium so far at Sochi 2014. But we should all understand it’s because the X-factor is working in Canada’s favour for now. 

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