Scott Russell - Saturday Feb. 8, 2014 22:23

Steve Podborski: Leader of the Pack

Canada’s Chef de Mission in Sochi represents a new breed of competitor as leader

Steve Podborski giving an interview

Canada's Chef de Mission Steve Podborski with a TV crew in Sochi (Scott Russell/CBC)

In sport, it generally helps if you have an example to follow.

And when you’re searching for someone to look up, it’s even better if you can turn to a figure who’s been there before. Loosely termed, this individual becomes a role model.

For the purposes of the Olympics, let’s call this person the team’s head coach, general manager, or Chef de Mission. In finding the right figure to fulfill those duties, Canadian athletes look for an Olympian of substance that they can turn to with the utmost confidence.

On the surface, Steve Podborski is just the right guy for the job.

His credentials are impeccable.

Podborski is one of the original “Crazy Canucks” who rocked the European alpine skiing aristocracy in the 1980s and won eight World Cup downhill races including the famed Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel twice in 1981 and 1982.

Podborski also delivered a bronze medal in the downhill at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. It was one of only two medals won by Canadians at those Games, the other being a speed skating silver by Gaetan Boucher.

Forget the 'good old days'

Times have changed, and Podborski refuses to look back with fondness on the “good old days” – choosing rather to foster a winning mentality on the part of the Canadian athletes under his watch.

“I’d say the biggest change is that we believe in sport in Canada now,” Podborski reflected at the outset of Sochi 2014, where Canada is hoping to surpass the total of 26 medals that its athletes won in Vancouver. “We believe in being the best and that it’s OK to say ‘I want to win.’”

Podborski points to the national euphoria that success at the Vancouver Games created across the country. The people in the streets cheering and waving flags made an impression on him because he saw it as an entire population finally embracing his kind of sport.

“So when we love it that much we want more,” he thought. “And we strive to be number one. We put money and effort, and dare I say love and some nation building into it and yeah … it’s darned awesome.”

Olympians as leaders

It’s only at the relatively recent Games that the Canadian Chef de Mission has been a high profile Olympian as opposed to an administrator of high performance sport.

Beginning with gold medal diver Sylvie Bernier at the Beijing Games in 2008 through champion short-track speed skater Natalie Lambert in Vancouver and swimming gold medallist Mark Tewksbury in London, the Chef de Mission has in effect become the spokesperson for the aspirations of Canada’s Olympic effort.

It makes sense, because the figure that athletes aspire to be like has to bring street credibility to the table. There’s no tool better suited to inspiration than the ability to say to those who follow in your footsteps, “Been there … done that.”

And it seems to me a person like Steve Podborski, who conquered the monster that is the downhill at Kitzbuhel not once but twice, is just the right man for the job.

“I think the biggest risk, in many ways, is when you decide that you’re going to try to be the best in the world and try for an Olympic medal,” he stressed. “The odds of failure are enormous. But we try and we win.”

Canada has become a very successful country within the Olympic movement and in particular at the Winter Games. The once prevailing attitude that it’s all right to show up and compete with dignity is somehow unsatisfying for someone in Podborski’s position. On the fields of play, when a country’s athletes venture into the Olympics they engage a confrontational situation.

“There is something very human about the Olympic Games and it’s easy to miss,” Podborski concluded. “It’s us competing against them. And now we get to win against our competitors from around the world and be the best.”

It’s simple logic from someone who knows how to walk onto the Olympic stage and be the leader of the pack. 

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