Mon, September 23, 2013

Vancouver success puts pressure on Canada's 2012 Olympians

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency



LONDON - Now that the Olympic flame that last blazed for real over the Vancouver Games two years ago is burning brightly here, Canadian athletes get their chance to handle a different type of heat.

Realistic or overly ambitious — we’re about to find out — the Canadian Olympic Committee has challenged the 377 Canadians competing here to finish in the top 12 of total medals won.

The temperature will be further turned up from fans back at home as many of them welcome amateur athletics into their homes for the first time since the wild successes of the 2010 Winter Games.

Roughly one-third of Team Canada marched into Olympic Stadium behind flagbearer Simon Whitfield Friday night, no doubt inspired by both their team leader and the sensational opening ceremony that kicked the Games off in style. Of course, they have to look no further for motivation than the decorated triathlete, who strode into the stadium to a loud applause, waving the Maple Leaf and wearing a smile as bright as his Olympic accomplishments.

But with the long, uplifting night of ceremony now behind them, it is the athletes who are in the spotlight, a position they’ve dreamed of through years of training — all aimed at getting to the pinnacle of their sports.

With 173 (or 47% of the Canadian roster) Olympic rookies, the bar may seem especially high for the first summer Games that the COC has issued such aggressive goals.

“This is a particularly special day for the Canadian Olympic Team,” COC president Marcel Aubut said at the team’s official press conference, a cheerleading session that emphasized yet again the Top-12 goal. “It is the day we truly begin testing the mettle of the teamwork that has grown out of Vancouver’s momentum these past two years.”

Of course, officials are hoping all that energy and optimism will filter down to the athletes and translate into results. Comparing summer to winter Olympics is dodgy territory, however. Since the Vancouver flame was extinguished, the COC and Own The Podium have attempted to use that success as a motivation for all of our Olympians going forward.

Eventually, the game plan goes, personal bests and happy-to-be-here moments will be replaced by more medals. But is it possible that the target is set too high for a team so young and a country that is far from a world power in the Summer Games.

Four years ago in Beijing, Canada had what it considered a positive result with 18 medals, albeit light in the best kind with just three gold. That was good enough for 14th place in the overall standings but to move up to 12th will likely require a total in the 23-25 range.

“I imagine it’s going to come down to a handful of medals that’s probably going to determine about eight places in the rankings,” said Canada’s chef de mission and former Olympic swimming medallist, Mark Tewksbury. “What will be really interesting for us is the dark horses, the athletes who have breakthrough performances that can really electrify a team.

“For me as the chef, I feel that there is a shift in spirit with this team that is already a bit of a checkmark going into these Games.”

Momentum can be a huge thing for an Olympic team, as we have seen in past Games when panic sets in if days go by without a medal. Of the dozens of Canadian athletes in action on the opening weekend, a handful can be considered outside medal hopes, though none is a bona fide contender for gold.

While the Canadians aim for their own higher, faster, stronger accomplishments, two of the big stories of these Games will be as they were four years ago in Beijing, albeit with a twist. American superstar Michael Phelps will once again be looking to be the dominant medal winner after winning eight gold in China. The swimming legend will attempt to get his 15th career gold Saturday night in the 400-metre individual medley but this time his biggest rival will be teammate Ryan Lochte, who defeated him in the same event at the U.S. trials.

The other big man from 2008, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, will be the story of the second week when he tries to repeat the electrifying 100-metre gold from Beijing’s showpiece Bird’s Nest Stadium. Like Phelps, Bolt will have to beat a game countryman rival in Yohan Blake, who was a victor in the Jamaican trials.

There will be other stories, of course. From heart-warming to heartbreaking and perhaps a surprise medal or two from the Canadians. There could be a dream men’s tennis final of Roger Federer (who turned down the chance to carry the Swiss flag on Friday) against Brit Andy Murray at venerable Wimbledon, one of many iconic London landmarks that weave their way into the Games.

Canadian Olympic legend Clara Hughes will ride down one of them bright and early on Sunday morning in the women’s road race that begins and ends at the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. It will be Hughes’s Olympic swan song, the end of a remarkable career in winter and summer sport.

For so many of her teammates, will these Games, kicked off in such style on Friday night, serve as a fresh and inspirational beginning?

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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