LONDON – The Olympics have gone from Winter to Summer, from Vancouver to London. This is no longer Canada’s home soil. This is no longer Canada’s specialty. And so we’re about to find out whether all that effort, all that patriotism and all that money can really make a lasting difference.
"This is a particularly special day for the Canadian Olympic team,'' COC president Marcel Aubut said Friday, a few hours before the Opening Ceremony. "It is the day we truly begin testing the mettle of the teamwork that has grown out of Vancouver’s momentum the past two years. For two years, we have waited for this moment.''
The Canadians won 14 gold medals in Vancouver, more than any other nation. They finished third in the overall medal count. Then they set their goal for London: top 12 in 2012.
It has a nice ring to it – too nice of a ring to it, as if it were an advertising slogan instead of a mission statement.
It might be overly ambitious. Canada has won exactly three gold medals in five of the past six Summer Games. Since Sydney 2000, the average number of medals needed to finish 12th in a Summer Games is 24. Canada hasn’t won more than 22 since it won 44 at Los Angeles 1984, when the Eastern bloc boycotted. Various experts predict Canada will win 17, 18 or 19 medals in London.
If the Canadians finish in the top 12, the goal will have set the bar for excellence. If they don’t, it will lead to the perception of failure – a shame in so many ways, because the Olympic experience should not boil down to an arbitrary number.
"There are such wonderful stories about the athletes, why are we worried whether we beat Afghanistan or whether we beat Belgium in the medal count?'' said Paul Henderson, who sailed in three Olympics wearing the Maple Leaf and served on the IOC. “There were magnificent stories in Vancouver, and there are going to be magnificent stories here. How many medals we win? Who cares?''
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But a lot of people do care. The medal count can have a tangible impact on the athletes of the future. And isn’t the Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger”? Isn’t the point to push yourself?
"That’s what sport’s about, right?'' said Mark Tewksbury, a gold medalist in swimming in 1992, now Canada’s chef de mission in London. “You’ve got to set the bar high and see if you can make it.''
The bar rose for Canada when Vancouver won the 2010 Winter Games.
Hoping for a great performance at home, a group of Canadian sports organizations created the "Own the Podium'' program, funneling extra funding to medal contenders to boost their chances. Part of that was the not-so-''Top Secret'' program, using scientific research to give those medal contenders an added edge. The first grants were awarded in 2005, and the support extended to summer athletes.
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There has been progress. Canada won more medals at Torino 2004 (24) than it had at Salt Lake 2002 (17), and it won more medals in Vancouver than it did in Torino. Canada won more medals at Beijing 2008 (18) than it had at Athens 2004 (12), and leaders insist Canada can win more medals in London than it did in Beijing.
The funding did not dry up after Vancouver, though it almost did. The National Post reported the government had to make up for an $11-million decrease in corporate money, and summer sports funding didn’t reach the $33-million level until last year, while winter sports were fully funded four years ahead of time.
"Usually after the Games at home, everything collapses,'' Aubut said. "Look at Athens. Look at Calgary. Everything collapses because they want to put their money elsewhere. We worked hard convincing them that Vancouver was just the beginning of the future of the sports program in Canada.''
"I really, truly believe that we’re going to see more medals than we did in Beijing and than we did in Athens,'' said Nathalie Lambert, a three-time medalist in short-track speed-skating, the assistant chef de mission in Athens and the chef de mission in Vancouver. "And we’re going to see more medals because we’ve invested more in those athletes and because they’re more ready. … I think we fine-tuned how we prepare them. We really focus on our Olympians now. And I truly believe it’s going to make a difference.''
Top 12 in 2012 was not set on a whim. The COC surveyed the individual sports organizations, looked at past results and projected the best guess at the time.
But here is the problem: A lot can change in two years. A lot can change in two weeks. And a lot is out of Canada’s control. So much depends on the superpowers – the United States, China, Russia – and how many medals they leave for the tightly packed group from about 10th to 18th place.
"I imagine that it’s going to probably come down to less than a handful of medals that’s going to determine probably about eight places in the rankings,'' Tewksbury said.
Canada expects success in sports like rowing, cycling and diving. But at the Olympics, things often don’t go as expected.
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"I think there’s going to be surprises, just like there were in Vancouver,'' Lambert said. "There’s going to be bad surprises, people that we really think should be on the podium without a doubt are going to have a disappointing day, and there’s going to be surprise people that we never even saw there that are going to rise to the occasion and perform to a level they never have before. And that’s what’s so wonderful about the Olympics.''
Frankly, top 12 would be a wonderful surprise for Canada. For the Canadians to reach their goal, they probably need their favorites to come through and some dark horses to seize the moment.
"I think it’s realistic,'' Lambert said. "I think it means that people have to perform. And if we don’t do it, it’s going to be extremely sad, because it’s going to mean that a lot of those athletes will go back home extremely disappointed from their own performance, and that’s where it matters. The number doesn’t really matter other than for the people that are actually supporting that number.''
Well, it could matter in one other way – if everything collapses the way Aubut said it could have after Vancouver, if people want to put their money elsewhere, if Canadian leaders have to work harder to convince them about the future of the sports program. The momentum has carried a long way, all the way to London. The challenge now is to keep it going.
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