SLAM!Sports
February 9, 2006
Medal or muddle ... rise or fall
It's 25 medals or bust in Turin, but can Canada really Own The Podium?
By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

TURIN, Italy -- Will they gold? Or will they fold?

Will they medal? Or will they muddle? Will they go forth and garner glory or finish fourth and say they're sorry?

It's different this time. There's public pressure fuelled by funding. There's a number, an official Canadian Olympic Committee Turin-or-bust over-under number.

Twenty-five medals!

Third overall!

Reap it or weep.

Is this where Canada begins to 'Own The Podium' with the $110 million being poured into the program through to Vancouver 2010?

Is this where our nation ends an era of being the largest team marching in the opening ceremonies at the Olympics with the least number of medals to show for it by the time the athletes return for the closing ceremonies?

Is this where Canada makes the statement that we will not play host to a third Olympics without winning a gold medal - that instead Canada will become a Winter Olympic power and win the most medals of any country in Vancouver four years from now?

At least one athlete - the one who has the first chance to be the first medal winner for Canada at the 20th Olympic Winter Games - is ready to take on the challenge.

"It's been amazing to be part of what we've been doing as an entire Canadian Olympic team to get here," said Jenn Heil, the queen of bumps and jumps throughout the Olympic quadrennial who was .01 of a point short of winning a medal four years ago in Salt Lake.

'SO MUCH SUCCESS'

"There's been so much success. And there's so much momentum. It's been so encouraging to see other team-mates in other sports do as well as they've done in the years, then the months and then the final weeks leading up to these Olympics. It's been so positive," added the World Cup champion moguls competitor from Spruce Grove, Alberta.

And it's been so different from four years ago, she said.

"When I went to Salt Lake I didn't know a single athlete from another sport. But now I know the top two from just about every sport. The COC has had us at seminars at Lake Louise. Now we're not just athletes from around a very large country getting together every four years and who had never met each other before. All year I've felt like part of a bigger team and followed every sport and all the successes."

Heil is first up in moguls. Her event goes the morning after the opening ceremonies.

She's from a spin-the-bottle sport. There's a form chart there, but there's a long list of people who have been on the podium in the World Cup circuit where she's the star. In Lake Placid, at the last event in North America before she headed over here, Heil finished ninth one day and second the other. She won her last event, in Italy, prior to the Olympics.

Gold is no guarantee. Neither is a medal.

"We only have one day, one race. It's the nature of our sport," she said.

But Heil says she plans to face the pressure like she hopes the other Canadian athletes will when they follow.

"You have to put the pressure in perspective. The best way to handle it, I think, is to apply pressure on the others.

"Because I'm the first event on the first day, I hope I'm successful. Not just for me but for the entire Canadian Olympic team.

"I'm the lucky one. When my event is over, I get to go out and cheer on all the others for the rest of the Olympics. I'd love to be the one to start the momentum for the team to feed off each other. I'm excited that I'm the first."

But what of those who follow?

There are others, such as Pierre Lueders - the back-to-back world champion in two-man bobsled who won this year's two-man World Cup championship in the final event prior to heading here - who have a different slant on it.

Lueders says he's insulted that the COC put a number like 25 on these Games - as a result, two medals beside his name.

"It infuriates me," he said.

"They're not the ones who have to do it. They take a look and say, 'There's a Canadian doing well. Let's put him down for two.' I've never said I'm going to win two medals at the Olympics."

HORRID HISTORY

Canada has a horrid history of not being able to close at the greatest show on snow. Going into these Olympics, our nation's miserable batting average at converting world championships and World Cups into Olympic medals has been so dismal it's been documented by the COC itself.

Undeniable podium potential has tripped on the start line and fallen flat on its face.

Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer knows the feeling. He did it in Salt Lake 2002. Literally.

The Red Deer speed skater was supposed to represent two of the most secure of the gold medals people were predicting for Canada.

First, he slipped and fell.

The fall was in the 500 metres. That was bad enough. But he tripped over the starting line in the 1,000 metres. He face-planted four strides into the race.

At least Wotherspoon knew it could happen.

On getaway day after the Nagano 1998 Olympics Wotherspoon told me the thing he'd take away was not just experiencing the thrill of victory in winning a surprise silver medal for Canada in that one, but watching the agony of defeat around him.

"I found the whole Olympic experience to be an excellent opportunity to learn for the next time. Seeing the Canadians on the podium brought tears to my eyes every time and reminded me to push that extra bit. The most important thing I learned is that the Olympics are not all about happiness ... there are so many tears involved as well."

Kurt Browning won four World Championships in figure skating but fell in the short program in both Albertville and Lillehammer - and didn't win a medal.

It's happened over and over and over again. It's happened too often to pretend it hasn't been a Canadian condition.

Canada's conversion rate in Salt Lake was 27%. By contrast, Germany, Russia, Norway and the U.S.A. had a combined conversion rate of 64%.

Will things change here?

Will Canada win 25 medals?

"We are here with the strongest team we have ever taken to an Olympic Winter Games," said Chris Rudge, the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

"The results this year and leading up to this year have been nothing short of spectacular. We have momentum going in like we've never had before."

CAME FROM SOMEWHERE

Rudge said the 25-medal count - Canada's goal for these Olympics - came from somewhere.

"We didn't just pick a number out of the air," he said. "Our goal was set to finish third. The 25 medals is the number we came to believe is how many we'll need to finish third."

Rudge, based on Canada's run-up to these Olympics, likes our chances.

"Based on winning at World Cup events and winning world championships this season, we're second only to Germany. We're ahead of the U.S., Austria and Norway."

Germany had 159 medals, Canada 133 and the U.S.A. 115, with Austria and Norway tied at 80.

"The 17 medals we won in Salt Lake is the most ever for Canada and our conversion rate wasn't very high. With this team and a higher conversion rate, we think we'll have a very successful Olympics."

There is, indisputably, more podium potential than Canada has ever taken into an Olympic Winter Games before.

Canada won 14 world championships in Olympic events in 2005 and produced 28 medals total in those world championships.

Of the 67 World Cup medallists Canada produced in 2004-05, 26 were gold medallists.

Of the 84 events on the Turin schedule, 74 of them have been contested on a World Cup circuit to date. Canada has medalled in 41 of those events, the highest of any nation.

Overall, Canada has won 130 medals in the 374 World Cup events to date, surpassing the 99 in 2004-05.

Men's and women's hockey and curling are virtually guaranteed for four medals.

Canadian speed skaters have won 28 World Cup medals this season compared to 19 at the same stage last year. Cindy Klassen, Steven Elm, Clara Hughes, Kristina Groves, Denny Morrison, and Wotherspoon all have certifiable medal potential in one or more events,

In short track the relay team medalled in each World Cup this year and Eric Bedard is ranked No. 2 in the 500 metre. Francois-Louis Tremblay also has a shot.

Canada is loaded with medal hopes in freestyle skiing where Canada placed 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th at one men's aerials event this year. Heil, in moguls, is not the only freestyle skier ranked No. 1 in the world heading into these Olympics. Steve Omischl of North Bay, Ont. finished second at last year's world championships.

Bobsleigh-skeleton has produced two medals all time. But some amazing stuff has been happening with the sliders leading into these Olympics.

Lueders has won back-to-back two-man world championships and is coming off winning a two-man and four-man World Cup the same weekend - for the first time in Europe - and the two-man World Cup title.

WORLD CHAMPIONS

Jeff Pain and Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards both became world champions two weekends ago. Lindsay Alcock is ranked third. Hollingsworth-Richards has won medals in seven of seven World Cup events this year. Helen Upperton won Canada's first ever gold medal in women's bobsled in January. With seven medals to date, Beckie Scott and Sara Renner have won the most medals ever in one season in cross-country. In figure skating Jeffrey Buttle is the only Canadian athlete to medal in every international event he entered in the past two years.

Alpine skiing doesn't have anybody on the COC "conversion" list, nobody in the top three of World Cup standings or at the world championships. But Thomas Grandi, Erik Guay and Emily Brydon have put Canada back on the podium on occasion of late and Genevieve Simard won silver and Allison Forsyth finished fourth in a World Cup giant slalom two weekends ago.

You get the idea. It's all there. But will this be the Olympics where Canada knows how to close?


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