Vancouver 2010: Team Canada's Olympic-sized hopes

Finishing first 'is not unrealistic,' says the head of the Canadian Olympic Committee

Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, was one happy guy last weekend, flipping between television channels at his Thornbury, Ont., home as Canadian athletes collected a staggering 30 medals in World Cup and other international events. It was “a feast” he says of the best ever weekend by Canada’s winter athletes. “Clearly the results this weekend are demonstrating we’re well on track.” And if there was a hint of relief in his voice, who can blame him?

Tomorrow marks one year to the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, and the COC has set a daunting goal for its athletes. The aim is no less than topping the Olympic medal count for the first time in history. To achieve this, the national team needs about 30 podium finishes—this in a country where its Olympic athletes failed to win a single gold medal on home soil, either at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, or on home ice and snow at the 1988 Calgary Games.

Until now, Canadians have been better Olympic hosts than competitors. That’s about to change, says Rudge. The COC has been criticized in the past for burdening its athletes, with unrealistic expectations—a factor in the collapse of the Canadian swim team in Athens, for instance. But Rudge, a retired business executive, doesn’t buy that argument.
“I always felt that we were a little too focused on an egalitarian approach to sport in this country,” he says. “I think anything you do in life, particularly when you get to the high-performance levels, setting goals and objectives is extremely important and means you have to put a plan in place to achieve them. If you don’t do that I don’t think you push yourself to your maximum capability. I don’t care whether it’s sport or medicine, science, music business or anything else.”

The key, says Rudge, is not setting the goals, but in creating the plan and finding the resources to meet them. In this case, the Games have attracted a flood of corporate sponsors for national teams and promising individual athletes. And it put in place Own The Podium, a five year, $110-million plan funded by government and corporate money, to provide athletes a competitive edge. “It would be wrong to set clear goals and objectives but not provide the support and resources the athletes need,” says Rudge. “They’ve got go hand in hand, otherwise it’s just pie in the sky wishful thinking.”

Deidra Dionne, an Olympic bronze medalist in aerials at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, says there has been a “drastic change” in the level of support coming into 2010.  “When I first came onto the tour in 2000, I had to pay my own way, for plane tickets and for my whole season.” Her expenses totalled about $40,000, an amount that would have been impossible for her to absorb as an 18-year-old without the help of several generous sponsors in her hometown of Red Deer, Alta. Now the team has world-class coaches, a strength trainer, plus technicians and therapists. “It’s not money in my pocket, but it’s people around me all the time to ensure I’m in the best situation to make my goals come true,” she says.

Rudge says the goal of finishing No. 1 “is not unrealistic” based on past performances and current World Cup results. The first serious goal setting was done in advance of the Turin Games. The COC predicted—and the athletes delivered—a third place in the medal count: 24 medals, seven gold, 10 silver and seven bronze. That’s a quantum leap from 1972 in Sapporo, Japan, where Canada tied for last with one silver. Or even Calgary where two silvers and three bronze were only enough to finish in a tie for 10th.

The competition has taken notice. Germany will be the biggest obstacle, but the U.S., which won 34 medals in Salt Lake, is also a contender. The U.S. has a new rival, “one you might not guess,” USA Today reported this week in an Olympic preview. “Our easygong neighbours to the north, the ones who, when it comes to sports, always have seemed content to be best at playing hockey and watching hockey and little else.”

They’ll be less easygoing in 2010 Rudge promises, and the medals won’t be limited to the hockey rink. Still, he allows a bit of wiggle room. But not much. “Suppose we only get 28 medals and come No. 2,”  he says. “That’s the most medals we’ve ever gotten in this country and it would still give the whole program a lift.” And the country, too.

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