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Canada’s Olympic athletes leave 2014 Winter Games with 25 medals and a mix of delight and disappointment

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SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 08: (L-R) Silver medalist Chloe Dufour-Lapointe of Canada and gold medalist Justine Dufour-Lapointe of Canada congratulate each other during the flower ceremony following the Ladies' Moguls Final 3 on day one of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

SOCHI, Russia — Can Canada have it both ways? Can the Canadian Olympic Committee come to Sochi declaring its goal is to finish first in the overall medal count, then fall short and say it is not disappointing?

Yes.

Here’s why:

That goal was/is about patriotism and sports, but also politics and money. You can’t ask the government, corporations and investors to give millions to the Own the Podium program – to funnel dollars to medal contenders – without setting a high standard. You can’t ask them to keep giving, let alone give more, if you lower that standard.

[Related: Canada downs Sweden to win second consecutive hockey gold]

You should be accountable. At the same time, you shouldn’t lose perspective on the big picture and forget all the individual athletes and teams – what they accomplished, how they accomplished it.

Canada did not finish No. 1 in the overall medal count. It finished fourth after finishing third each of the past two Winter Games. Canada did not equal its totals four years ago in Vancouver, either. It won 10 golds and 25 medals in Sochi, after winning 14 and 26 at home, and five of those medals came in new events.

By the highest standard – the one the COC set – this is a failure. Canada could have done better. Just one example: The freestyle and alpine snowboarders won two medals, one fewer than four years ago, even though they had four more medal chances because of new events.

But by a realistic standard, this is excellent. Russia finished first in gold medals with 12. So Canada was two behind – and two of Canada’s golds came from hockey, the sport Canadians care most about by far. (How many golds would Russia trade for one in men’s hockey?)

Russia led the overall medal count with 33. The United States was second with 28, Norway third with 26. So Canada was eight medals from No. 1, when it was 11 from No. 1 in Vancouver. The competition was fiercer – five countries had 24 medals or more, when four had 23 or more in Vancouver – and Canada was right there with the best in the world once again.

Canada has 35 million people, by the way. That’s 30 million more than Norway, but 113 million fewer than Russia and 278 million fewer than the United States.

[Medal table: Final total medal standings]

“There is zero disappointment,” said Marcel Aubut, the president of the COC. “I am thrilled about this, absolutely thrilled. … I consider it an improvement, a major improvement. There is no reason to be disappointed here.”

“I’m super proud,” said Steve Podborski, the chef de mission. “I think they did really, really well. We are right near the very top of the medal count. We are in striking distance, a handful of medals from being No. 1 on the planet.”

Countries generally see a bump in medals when they host an Olympics, because funding and enthusiasm increase beforehand, then see a decline in medals afterward, because funding and enthusiasm wane. Only one country has ever won more medals four years after hosting a Winter Games, Canada, and that was because the bar was so low. Canada won five medals in 1988 in Calgary, then seven four years later in Albertville, France.

So far Canada has been able to keep increasing funding and keep competing in the afterglow of Vancouver. “We can see that a new culture of winning has really truly emerged,” said Heather Moyse, who defended her Olympic gold in bobsled with Kaillie Humphries and was chosen to carry the Canadian flag with her teammate at the Closing Ceremony. The trick will be to keep winning a priority – to increasing funding and keep competing consistently. It will be hard to stay near the top. It will be harder to reach it.

“Is there the will to continue?” asked Podborski. “Do Canadians want our athletes … to go out on the international stage and take the opportunity to be the best? I think the answer is yes.”

Podborski said Canadian society had aligned with the athletes’ ambitions. “I think – I don’t know, but I think – that our government and our corporations and our people will continue to support our nation in its quest to be the best in the world,” he said. “And we can still be Canadian – humble, nice, lovely people who apologize for kicking your you-know-what. But we’re going to do that. And we’re going to be the best one day, and I think it’s sustainable.”

[Photos: Top 10 Canadian moments in Sochi]

There were so many stories in Sochi. Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe went one-two in women’s moguls – while their sister, Maxime, finished in the top 12, too. Justine and Chloe held hands before taking the podium for the flower ceremony, then brought Maxime to the podium for the press conference. Alex Bilodeau and Mikael Kingsbury went one-two in men’s moguls. Bilodeau defended his gold from Vancouver, then said Kingsbury would win two straight someday.

Charles Hamelin won gold in the 1,500 metres in short-track speedskating and kissed his longtime girlfriend, Marianne St-Gelais, who won silver as part of the women’s 3,000-metre relay team. He failed to win a medal in his other three events; they went through ups and downs together.

The women’s hockey team faced a 2-0 deficit with 3 1/2 minutes to go in regulation, then rallied for a 3-2 overtime win over the archrival Americans and won gold for the fourth straight Olympics. Jayna Hefford, Caroline Ouellette and Hayley Wickenheiser became the first Canadians to win four golds at the Winter Games. They wrote a letter to inspire the men, who beat the Americans in the semifinals the next day, 1-0, and went to on beat Sweden 3-0 for gold on Sunday. The men have won the last two golds and three of the last four.

Jan Hudec won bronze in the super-G on two bad knees, Canada’s first alpine skiing medal in 20 years. Kaya Turski didn’t win anything. The X Games star crashed twice while fellow Canadians Dara Howell won gold and Kim Lamarre won bronze in women’s ski slopestyle. But Turski went through hell just to be on that mountain – coming back from a torn ACL in 5 1/2 months, gutting through a mysterious illness during the Olympics.

[Related: How Canadians watched an early-morning hockey game]

Jennifer Jones. Brad Jacobs. Patrick Chan. Marielle Thompson. Dominique Maltais. Mike Riddle. Kelsey Serwa. Tessa Virtue. Scott Moir. Mark McMorris. Charle Cournoyer. Gilmore Junio gave up his spot in the 1,000 metres in long-track speedskating because he felt Denny Morrison had a better shot, and Morrison won silver. Cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth saw a Russian break a ski during a race, and he ran out to give him a new one, so he could finish with dignity.

None of it happens without patriotism and sports, and none of it happens without politics and money, too. So the COC will keep aiming high, keep asking for more and keep trying to produce a return for the investors, for the country and for the athletes themselves. On to Pyeongchang in 2018.

“This is going to intensify,” Aubut said. “There is no option but to be No. 1, and we are committed more than ever to high-performance sport. We are going to work tirelessly on this starting Monday. … We are going to South Korea next time. We want to be No. 1.”

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