Canada off to best start ever at Sochi Olympics
Scorching start at Winter Games helped by investment in new sports
Even as Dara Howell slowed to a stop after a spectacular gold-winning run, her hands flew to her face and her jaw dropped in awe at what she’d accomplished: the first woman in history to win Olympic gold in slopestyle skiing, one of the eight new sports and 12 medals added to the roster at Sochi.
It’s not only Howell making history.
Canada is off to its best Winter Olympic start ever, with nine medals at the end of Day 4. That eclipses the country's previous best four-day showing, five medals (two gold, two silver, one bronze) at Vancouver 2010.
Before that, Canada's best haul in the first four days was a silver and three bronze in Lake Placid way back in 1932.
New events, new opportunity
A key reason for this year's success is all the new disciplines at Sochi, which saw the largest ever medal increase for the winter event, raising the total to 98.
Of the nine medals won by Team Canada in Sochi, four have been in inaugural events: silver in team figure skating, two for slopestyle skiing on Tuesday (Howell with gold and fellow Canadian Kim Lamarre with bronze) and Mark McMorris's bronze in slopestyle snowboarding.
“We’ve done extremely well,” said Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own The Podium. “And we knew coming into this Olympic Games that the new sports would be a strength for us.”
Merklinger said that Own The Podium, the organization tasked with raising Canada's medal haul, focuses its funds only on new sports where a pool of athletes exist with podium potential.
“We look at new sports very much, as soon as they’re on the program as kind of strategic opportunities,” said Merklinger. “We will accelerate investment and technical support to those new sports.”
Freestyle and snowboarding sports – areas where Canada has excelled and that cover half of the new sports events in Sochi – are among those that saw a sharp rise in funding over the past few Winter Games.
'Run for our money'
That investment is not only noticed by Canadian athletes but by their rivals.
When asked about Canada’s dominance in the new slopestyle ski event, Devin Logan, the U.S. skier sandwiched between two Canadians with her silver, remarked that the Canadians were "giving us a run for our money."
As Howell noted, the Canadian slopestyle team started two-and-a-half years ago and it clearly seems to be working.
“They really do get behind us and want to see us do the best we can,” said Howell.
Most of the events debuting in Sochi were borne in the action-packed, Red Bull-fuelled X Games, included to bring in a younger audience.
Eight of the new medals are men’s and women’s events in ski halfpipe, ski slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle and snowboard parallel slalom. The remaining additions are women’s ski jumping, biathlon mixed relay, the figure skating team event and a luge team relay.
Venues for the extreme sports often take athletes to their limits, introducing ever-higher ramps and trickier courses. Athletes, too, push themselves with increasingly risky moves.
In the lead-up to showtime, Sochi organizers scrambled to tweak courses for new events, such as snowboard slopestyle, after athletes complained about conditions. U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White made a splash when he chose to pull out of the inaugural snowboard slopestyle event.
On Tuesday, the ski slopestyle course proved too much for Canadian skier Yuki Tsubota, who suffered a jaw injury after a hard tumble during one run.
Each Canadian slopestyle skier coming off the slopes paid tribute to one of their own, Sarah Burke, 29, who died in a 2012 training accident in Utah. Burke pressed for the inclusion of slopestyle in the Olympics.
The risk and the reward
But Burke’s death – in the superpipe event she pioneered – appears to have inspired instead of deterred.
“I said earlier this week that a Canadian can bring home a medal and it will be for Sarah,” said Howell. “She was such an inspiration to me and everybody else in freeskiing.”
Still, the push to perform bigger, faster tricks is one felt heavily in the Olympics’ newer sports.
In snowboarding – a sport present in five Winter Games with two new events this year – some athletes worry about whether it’s gone too far.
Canadian snowboarder Crispin Lipscomb, after failing to qualify for the snowboarding halfpipe, commented that the sport has “gotten to a dangerous place” in the past 12 years.
“The pressure is on these athletes to push the sport," he said. "I wish there were more opportunities for athletes not to feel this pressure."
The Canadian has expressed hope that the future will see snowboarders focus more on the style, rather than the high altitude rewarded by the judges.
At the end of the Games, however, many Canadians will be focused on whether the risk and the investment pay off. Own The Podium's self-proclaimed goal is to surpass the 26 medals, including 14 golds, won at the Vancouver Games.
For Eric MacIntosh, a University of Ottawa sports administration professor, it's a worthy goal.
“It makes sense to invest strategically because a lot of the other countries that compete at the Olympics don’t have the same amount of investment that [Canada’s] putting in,” said MacIntosh.
Plus, MacIntosh notes, it brings another advantage.
“It shows in national pride when our Olympians perform well on the national stage.”