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Strong case for a Quebec Olympic team

Fourth-Place Medal

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Quebec could make its real Olympic dream happen.

No, not hosting the 2022 Winter Games in Quebec City. The province's premier, Jean Charest, confirmed Monday that there will be a bid. Charest used the word "dream" in reference to 2022 without speaking of the dream the province might be inclined to go for somewhere down the line: holding a Winter Games in Quebec City during which Quebec athletes compete under the fleur-de-lis.

A Quebec Olympic team is an idea whose time has come, though the rest of Canada has kept its head in the snowbank. It was no fluke that the first Canadian gold medal on home soil came from a Quebecer, Alexandre Bilodeau, nor that Quebec produced almost all of Canada's short-track speedskating team (pictured). Charest's announcement and the uproar over the Vancouver Olympics failing to sufficiently recognize French-Canadian culture is bound to renew talk about Team Quebec, so it's worth revisiting.

The subject typically comes up in a hockey context. A Quebec politician – before the 2006 Olympics it was Gilles Duceppe, the federal leader of the Bloc Quebecois – will float the idea of Team Quebec. The hockey establishment invariably says, "No way."

When the subject came up before the '08 world championship, played in Quebec City, CBC Sports ran a simulation of a Team Canada-Team Quebec game. In the simulation, Martin Brodeur nailed a 3-2 shootout win for Les Bleus, for what it was worth.

The wrong question is being asked of the wrong people. NHL guys will never say boo. It is not "Would you want to play hockey for Team Quebec?" It should be "Could there be a Quebec Olympic team?"

Not only is the answer yes, it could happen within our lifetime.

Simply put, if all of Canada embraced Olympic sports the way Quebec does, the country might have no worries about owning the podium at the Winter Games.

Quebec is a true sports nation in most eyes, if not those of the IOC. It really shines through in three general areas.

The success. When Bilodeau won the men's moguls Sunday, he carried on a tradition that took shape before he was born.

In 1984, speedskater Gaetan Boucher and diver Sylvie Bernier each won Olympic golds. That was catalytic for the sports community in Quebec. Success became kind of addictive.

Quebec athletes accounted for five of 24 Canadian medals in Turin in 2006, the first Olympics influenced by Own the Podium funding.

It was more evident at Salt Lake City in 2002 (six of 17) and at Lillehammer in '94 (eight of 17). That is a high percentage of models for a province that amounts to less than a quarter of Canada's population.

The support. Quebec has a more holistic, better-organized approach than the rest of the Canada (which is to say Quebec is actually organized).

In 1985, SportsQuebec established a center of excellence based in Montreal. It now oversees all 64 sports federations in the province, from cheerleading to racing cars. Quebec also has a ministry of education, recreation, and sport, all intertwined (unlike other provinces, which have ministries of education).

That leads to much earlier talent identification, and thus more stars and more depth in the ranks. It's astonishing how often Canadian Olympians, even those who are top-ranked in the world, practically fell into their sport. Speedskater Christine Nesbitt, as per her Wiki, started at age 12 and went into long track only when she was 18. That would never happen in Quebec today. She probably would have an earlier start toward getting the 10,000 hours of practice it takes to become an expert.

Quebec has taken to specialized "sports-etudes" high school programs. In Ottawa, a French-language high school called Louis-Riel set up a sports-etudes program just a few years ago. By 2009, basketball, soccer, and volleyball teams had all won Ontario championships in the same calendar year.

None of this is because Quebec has more federal transfer payments to toss around (a misconception). For one, it's in the same boat as Ontario, paying more than it gets back. Second, SportsQuebec takes only 30 percent of its funding from the government; the remainder is revenue-generated. They know how to raise funds, and people have bought in.

The sports culture. An Olympic gold medalist from Quebec is a celebrity in the province. Elsewhere in Canada, no one can remember to invite Donovan Bailey or Kerrin Lee-Gartner to run in the Olympic Torch Relay.

In Ontario, sports media are all top-down, focused on pro (read: Toronto) teams. In Quebec, news filters up more. Quebec media have managed to stick to a commitment to provide more coverage of Olympic and amateur athletes, along with those whose sports get more media play in Europe.

Examples abound. Tennis player Aleksandra Wozniak, who is 34th in the world, is quoted regularly in the French-language media. (Try to remember the last time you saw an Ontario media outlet interview tennis pros like Daniel Nestor or Frank Dancevic.) University teams like the Laval Rouge et Or football team – five national titles since 1999 – are covered intensely.

Or take Les Jeux du Quebec, the province's Olympics-style competition for athletes under 18. Last month, RIS, a French-language sports network, aired a one-hour special on its 40th anniversary. That wouldn't happen in Ontario. Nor would five Ontario cities bid to host an event like Les Jeux, and if they did, the selected city wouldn't invest $20 million in facilities, as Gatineau did. Le Droit, the French-language daily in Ottawa-Gatineau, has been running several articles a week about an event still months away. Virtually none of this would happen anywhere else in Canada.

The media attention must help the athletes. It's nice to feel appreciated.

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Bottom line: Hopefully this shows why you should ignore anyone who outright dismisses the idea Quebec could have its own Olympic team. Perhaps its amateur sports model should apply to the entire country.

It has the bona fides. At least two nonsovereign distinct regions, Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, compete under their own flag in the Olympics. Great Britain sends a unified team, but FIFA allows England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales each to field a national soccer team.

There has been public pressure for Scotland to be in the Olympics. Great Britain's Olympic men's curling team, which is competing Tuesday in Vancouver, plays internationally under the Scottish flag.

Quebec, with 7.8 million people, also has a larger population than Finland and Norway, both good Winter Games nations.

Quebec might be more worthy of being an Olympic nation than the rest of Canada is prepared to contemplate. Perhaps by 2022, Patrice Cormier – the Canadian world junior hockey captain who was suspended for the rest of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season for a blindside elbow – will be playing for Team Quebec against Canada. Stranger things have happened.

The possibility is as evident as the frame that La Presse in Montreal put around its front-page photo of Bilodeau on Monday: blue and white, same as the Quebec flag.

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