Our best Games

Chris Rudge is so typically Canadian.

Just days from the start of the Turin Winter Olympics, in a season of athletic success unlike anything before it, the head of Canadian Olympic Committee admits he is "scared to death on a personal level."

Scared to death in the best possible way.

"You see all this happening," Rudge said. "And it's incredible. I'm scared for the kids, the way a parent is scared for his kids. We want them to do so well. We want them to come away feeling good about themselves."

Dammit, he almost said it, but that would be completely un-Canadian if he had. Rudge more than wants them to win, he expects them to win. Politely, though, he just doesn't want to publicly impose.

Canada is sending the strongest, deepest, most accomplished team of winter sport athletes it has sent to a Games -- and that by itself is terrifically exciting.

Four years ago, it was all about hockey and ending a 50-year jinx at the Olympic Games. Four years from now, at home in Vancouver, it is supposed to be about owning the podium.

These were to be the in-between Olympics, the Games nobody noticed.

The great dress rehearsal for Vancouver.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Whistler: This dress rehearsal morphed into a full-blown production.

Suddenly, Turin is the real show and and never before have Canadians gone into an Olympics so confident prior to the beginning of a Winter Games.

"We're performing beyond anything we've done in the past," Rudge said.

And then this clear Canadian message of uncertainty, just in case: "I sure hope we haven't peaked early."

More than ever before, that seems to be the question. And it's not about one athlete or one team or one sport at these Games. It's about a record number of athletes -- more than 65 in total -- who have found themselves on World Cup or world championship podiums on more than 135 occasions in just the past few months.

"Across the board, we have depth in a variety of sports like we've never had before," said Alex Gardiner, the COC's director of international performance. "It isn't just the number of athletes, it's the number of sports. And what you feel right now is a momentum building.

"I'm not hearing: 'I'm just happy to be going to the Olympics.' I'm hearing: 'I'm going to win.' There is a positive environment surrounding our Olympic athletes that we hope builds right into Turin."

Aside from hockey and curling, where four medals are anticipated if not expected, there is a long list of Canadians expected to accomplish in Turin.

- Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg has won eight World Cup medals this season in four different speed-skating events.

- Skeleton rider Melissa Hollingsworth-Richards of Eckville, Alta., has won seven medals in the first seven races of this season.

- Speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer, despite not dominating as he has in the past, has had seven podium finishes in either the 500 or 1,000-metre World Cup races.

- Defending gold-medal winner Beckie Scott of Vermillion, Alta., has won six cross-country medals in her preparation for Turin.

- Moguls skier Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., has been dominant of late, winning six World Cup medals and should take home Canada's first medal in Turin.

- Kyle Nissen of Calgary has taken home five medals in aerials skiing this season.

- Bobsledder Pierre Lueders of Edmonton and Lascelles Brown of Calgary are defending World Cup champions in the two-man event.

Never before have so many accomplished so much, but the puzzle of Athens and all Olympics past will remain a puzzle of Turin unless otherwise altered.

"We know now we have developed athletes," Rudge said. "Now we have to see if they can push it over the edge."

"It has to be about being your best on the biggest day," said Beckie Scott, entering her third Olympic Games, her first with such large expectations. "Everybody focuses on the Olympics and says: 'It's different than anything else.' But it's not really.

"We race high-quality races all year. The pressure in very high. Maybe Canadians aren't watching or maybe they don't know what's going on in our sport. But for the cross-country world, they know. What I have to do at the Olympics is what I always do. I have to be at my best."

Ken Read is one of those who believes Canadians have been too laid-back with their attitude toward Olympic sports for far too long. The emphasis has been too much on making an Olympic team rather than winning at the Games.

This season alone, five different alpine skiers, in four different disciplines, have ended up on a World Cup podium under Read's leadership of Alpine Canada.

"I believe we're in the business of winning," said Read, the former Olympic downhill ski racer. "It's a clear articulation. I know some people say thinking about winning only puts undue pressure on athletes. But the focus has to be: 'You're here to deliver.' Be proud of who you are and where you came from.

"What we want to do is have a lot of different athletes with a lot of different opportunities. The more chances you have, the more chance you have of being successful."

That's where depth comes into play for Canada.

These won't be the one-athlete Olympics. While there will be the usual over-focus on hockey, some names, as always, will come from the lesser followed sports.

Mark Fawcett was supposed to win a snowboarding medal in Nagano but some no-name called Ross Rebagliati wound up the winner.

"In 1988, everybody focused on Laurie Graham in Calgary but Karen Percy came away with the medals," Read said.

From sports we don't necessarily know well come names we have hardly heard about:

- Warren Shouldice of Calgary has won three World Cup medals in aerials skiing.

- The aptly named Jeff Pain of Calgary has won gold medals in the fourth, sixth and seventh races on the world cup skeleton circuit.

- Short track speedskater Eric Bedard of Ste-Thecle, Que., has been on the podium five times this season, three times individually and twice as part of relay teams.

- The women's bobsled combo of Helen Upperton and Calgary and Heather Moyes of Summerside, P.E.I., has won gold, silver and silver in the past four World Cup races.

- Drew Neilson of North Vancouver won silver and gold in back-to-back days at two World Cup snowboard cross events in Austria earlier last month. And so it goes.

The hope from the COC is Canada will finish third among medal winners here.

The number they have conservatively floated is 25 medals.

Optimistically now, some Olympic insiders figure they can even better that total.

"Our eye is on the target and that's new," said Shane Pearsall, the chef de mission in Turin. "I think we're coming together at the right time. Have we got the formula figured out yet? I'm not sure.

"But we're taking a crack at it. More than ever before."

---

CANADA'S MEDAL COUNT

- Top Sports By Podium Finishes This Season:

Speed Skating 28

Freestyle Skiing 25

Short track spd skating 16

Snowboarding 15

Skeleton 14