Better days ahead

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:46 AM ET

When William Thompson took over as the CEO of Skate Canada about 18 months ago, figure skating, and the Canadian variety in particular, was feeling lower than a rattler's belly in a wagonwheel rut.

The Salt Lake Olympic judging scandal had fans leaving disillusioned. The new judging system was confusing. The TV market was saturated by everyone from skating princes to clowns, which contributed to a decline in audiences and TV ratings.

Canadians had grown weary of watching Emanuel Sandhu do his Zamboni routine. An audience that had been used to seeing Canadian icons on the podium hadn't been treated to a gold at the world championships since Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz won the ice dancing title in 2003. It was a sport that hadn't had a dynamic personality since Elvis.

Now, as Canada's summer Olympic sports bask in the afterglow of Beijing, Thompson is at the helm of a program that is a lynch-pin to the Canadian Olympic Committee's plans for a medal bonanza two years from now at the Vancouver Winter Games. A hot seat some might think.

"As a country, it's an achievable goal but I wouldn't use (winning the medal race) to measure if it's a successful Games. As long as we're up there with Germany, U.S. and Russia you'd have to equate that as being pretty successful," Thompson said yesterday.

"It isn't so much how many medals we can win, but which medals are won," Thompson said about what is important to Canadians.

"The public in Canada prioritize sport. I'd like to do a survey and ask people would you rather win the gold in the men's and women's hockey or would you like to win the medal totals. I'm betting the average Canadian would be fine with coming a little lower in the medal total and win those two hockey medals. In Vancouver, hockey is going to be incredibly important, skating is popular, skiing -- those sports get more priority."

And, while Canadian figure skating isn't exactly experiencing another golden age, there are signs of a renaissance. At the worlds in March, three Canadian entries made it on to the podium, and that hadn't happened since 1993. Breakthroughs came in three different disciplines. That hadn't been accomplished since 1988.

Jeff Buttle was the first Canadian in 11 years to win the men's singles. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir danced to silver and Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison took pairs bronze. Joannie Rochette was fifth and is on the cusp of becoming medallist, and Patrick Chan, at 17, could someday own this sport.

"We made some mistakes after Salt Lake. Skate Canada didn't do some of the investment in the athlete support programs we needed to," Thompson said. "We didn't do as much as we could have. It wasn't so much lack of money. We had enough ... it was getting a clear vision of how to support the athletes. In the last year we've put in some good sports science programs, lined up psychological training, physiologists, doctors ... that has improved performances. But you can't turn programs on and off like a tap. It takes a while.

"We've always been good at creating good skaters. That never has been the issue. It's helping them become the best competitors -- that's where we can improve."

Unlike Stojko, Orser of Karen Magnussen, none of the current crop of skaters have been able to capture the imagination of Canadians.

"To get interest you need athletes performing well," said Thompson but, he admits Skate Canada also is responsible for the identity crisis. Many Canadians wouldn't know Rochette from a round chocolate with nutty bits.

"I'm not sure we've done a great job in getting their names into the public. It's starting. People are starting to get interested in Jeff and Patrick Chan ... but we have to help them get known."


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