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Canada’s Olympians are no longer afraid to say it: They want to be No. 1

Canadian Olympic team chef de mission Steve Podborski
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Canadian Olympic team chef de mission Steve Podborski gets a handshake after the Canadian Olympic Committee opening press conference at the Main Press Centre for the Sochi Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, COC - Mike Ridewood

SOCHI, Russia – Once upon a time, this would have seemed so, well, un-Canadian. You just did not waltz into a press conference, the way the leaders of the delegation to Sochi did Thursday, and declare your goal was to finish first in the medal count. It would have been impolite. Canadians came to the Winter Olympics to participate, to try their best.

"If you dared to want to be No. 1," said Steve Podborksi, Canada's chef de mission in Sochi, "it was kind of like going too far."

Not anymore. What it means to be Canadian, at least in this context, has been redefined by the spectacular success of the Vancouver Games four years ago. You can set big, bold goals. You don't need to apologize for ambition. Canadians come to the Winter Olympics to win, to be the best.

"This is how Canadians are built," said Marcel Aubut, the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "Canadians are looking for the highest."

"It's a transformation," said Podborski, wearing sunglasses propped atop his head, cool and confident. "It's, I think, an ideal approach. And we may not win the medal count this time. We might not win it the next time. But one day we will, because we are striving to be No. 1 in the world in the medal count."

It should be noted that the goal says nothing about gold. Team Canada might not be able to match the 14 gold medals won in Vancouver, a record for the Winter Games. Take hockey, the sport Canadians love most. The women's team has won three straight golds, but it is an underdog to the archrival Americans this time. The men's team is coming off Sidney Crosby's golden goal, but it is on big ice in an anything-can-happen tournament full of NHLers.

Still, talking about finishing first in the medal count shows swagger. Canada won 26 medals in Vancouver, a record for the country, but that was good for third behind the United States and Germany. It has never finished higher than that.

For much of the history of the Winter Olympics, Canada has been an also-ran. It finished third in the medal count in 1932 in Lake Placid. Otherwise, it finished somewhere between sixth and 16th place 16 times.

Then it finished fifth in 1998 in Nagano. Then it finished fourth in 2002 in Salt Lake. Then it finished third in 2006 in Torino – with an eye on 2010 in Vancouver.

Canada won the bid for Vancouver before Torino. The "Own the Podium" program was created to funnel money from the federal government and corporate community to the athletes with the best medal chances, providing them with specialized coaches and trainers. It started paying off in Torino, kept paying off in Vancouver and should continue to pay off in Sochi.

"You get the home boost, and traditionally the funding falls off and you don't have the same resources," Podborski said. "We are … saying, 'No, no. Let's win again.' And it's a fantastic, wonderful change."

Not only did the money not dry up after Vancouver, it flowed even more than before – about $14 million more over the four-year cycle for winter sports, up to a total of about $75 million. Canada is the only country to host a Winter Olympics and then win more medals at the next one – it won five 1988 in Calgary, then seven in 1992 in Albertville – and it's trying to repeat the feat on a much larger scale.

"In my opinion, Vancouver was perhaps the moment when Canada realized that Canadian athletes had gotten to that next level," Podborski said. "And not only did they realize it, they actually were like, 'Oh, we love that. We will stand in the streets and sing our national anthem. We will celebrate 14 gold medals. We will say it's all right to work hard. … To be the best in the world, we will celebrate that.' I thought the Games in Vancouver were incredible. I'm looking forward to us doing better here, and we can."

"It is very much a cultural shift in our country," said Anne Merklinger, the chief executive officer of "Own the Podium." "Canadian athletes, when they come to the Olympic Games, they want to win. They believe they can win, and they have won. And so they're carrying that momentum and that confidence and that belief in themselves, the belief in our country."

Some of the success and the cultural shift have come directly from new sports – X Games sports. Canada has excelled, and the demeanor is more stoked than staid. Just this week, Canadian snowboarders Sebastien Toutant and Max Parrot chirped American star Shaun White on Twitter for pulling out of the slopestyle event, saying he was scared to lose and not worried about getting hurt on the difficult course, as he said.

Is there a danger that Ugly Americans will have new cousins – Cocky Canadians? Not necessarily. Talking trash is part of snowboarding. "Is it something we would endorse? No," Podborski said. "Is it something that happens in this world? Yes."

And does that mean Canada's surge is any less legitimate? No. In fact, Podborski said "Own the Podium" has given Canada an opportunity in traditional sports as well, and the greatest gains in Sochi could come in cross country and alpine skiing. Podborski even talked a little trash to the usual powers. "We're going to get them, too," he said. "So watch out, you guys."

Podborski skied for Canada in 1980 in Lake Placid. He won bronze in the downhill. Canada won only one other medal in those Winter Olympics – Gaetan Boucher's silver in the men's 1,000-metre long-track speed-skating – and finished 13th in the medal count.

Back then, if you talked about being No. 1 for Canada, "you were an outlier," Podborski said.

Now, you're an outlier if you don't.

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