Sport can be funny -- Canada's declared goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics was to win the most medals, because placing first in the gold medal tally was deemed unrealistic. Well, we all know what happened next: That goal was turned on its head as Canada won a record 14 gold medals, leading the world in wins -- while "only" placing third overall.
Now, with the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics starting Friday, the Canadian team has a different goal: To place in the top three in the gold medal count. No mention of winning the overall total. Why the difference? And does Canada's declared goal risk being upended, once again, in Vancouver?
"There's quite a discrepancy between the gold, silver and bronze in Paralympic sports, so gold is really the measure for Paralympic sport," said Clair Buffone Blair, director of planning and operations with Own The Podium. "That's been our goal from the very beginning, set by the Canadian Paralympic Committee."
Actually, to say there's a discrepancy between medals at the Paralympics is not completely fair -- plenty of Paralympic wins are by the slimmest of margins. What's interesting, though, is that Canada's chance to own the podium this month in Vancouver will come down to two disciplines: Alpine and Nordic skiing.
That's because the other winter Paralympic sports, sledge hockey and wheelchair curling, can only deliver one medal per team. But Paralympic alpine skiing has tons of categories and medal opportunities -- men's and women's, in standing, sitting and visually impaired classifications, all racing the typical events like downhill, super G, super combined, GS and slalom. In cross country, there are men's and women's races for standing, sitting and visually impaired athletes over 5km, 10km, 15 km and 20 km as well as biathlon, relays and sprints. So how will Canada do?
"It's hard to predict a number, because the medals will be so spread out amongst the skiing events," said chef de mission Blair McIntosh, who is also director of games for the Sport Alliance of Ontario. "We're hoping we can retain both sledge hockey and curling, they're reigning Paralympic champions."
Canada won five skiing medals in Turin in 2006. Russia dominated the skiing there. Four years ago, Russia led all nations in Turin with 13 golds, followed by Germany at eight and a three-way tie between Ukraine, France and the U.S. with seven gold apiece. Canada placed sixth overall in Turin with five gold and 13 total medals.
"Certainly we're looking for more than that to move us up the ladder towards third place," said McIntosh. "It really comes down to the skiing, so in the first week of competing we're really going to see where where're headed."
Like the Olympic athletes, the most promising Canadian Paralympic athletes have benefited in the last few years from a huge increase in funding from the Own The Podium program. In preparation for Turin 2006, about $1.5 million went towards the four winter Paralympic disciplines. That amount soared to just over $10 million for the quadrennial leading up to Vancouver 2010. Will the investment make a major difference? Own The Podium thinks so, as does McIntosh. And after spending the past week in Vancouver settling in -- with some welcome snow falling in Whistler -- the 53 athletes and guides nominated to the Canadian Paralympic team are eager to get started on moving up the ranks.
"We're still very comfortable with that prediction and looking forward to achieving it," said McIntosh. "Our teams have gotten that much stronger because of the support we've gotten in the last four years."