BACK ON TRACK

Confident Canadians view the ’06 Games in Italy as a launching pad to a 2010 medal-fest in B.C.

JAMES DEACON December 5 2005

BACK ON TRACK

Confident Canadians view the ’06 Games in Italy as a launching pad to a 2010 medal-fest in B.C.

JAMES DEACON December 5 2005

BACK ON TRACK

Confident Canadians view the ’06 Games in Italy as a launching pad to a 2010 medal-fest in B.C.

JAMES DEACON

It could have been just another pre-Olympic press conference, but it wasn't. And that alone could be enough to give Canadians a whiff of optimism about our country's chances in upcoming Winter Games. Last month, General Motors announced it was renewing its sponsorship of Alpine Canada and signing a major deal with the Canadian Olympic Committee and Vancouver-Whistler organizers to help underwrite the 2010 Winter Games. As expected, the usual speechifying and back-slapping honoured the auto giant's decades-long commitment to sport in Canada.

But before that, and without any sugary introduction, Thomas Grandi, the leader of the men’s alpine team, took the podium and opened the event by talking about racing, the importance of being prepared, and how sponsorship money helps his team’s chances in Turin next February.

That alone was significant. Athletes never get top billing at these affairs—corporate events are almost always fronted by unctuous guys in suits and designed to give the sponsors maximum exposure. The people who actually run and ski and skate for Canada—the ones who might win medals and bring honour to the nation-are too often asked to speak only when spoken to, and to smile appreciatively at all the right moments. But here, Grandi—ranked third in giant slalom going into this World Cup season—was the host and rightful face of his sport and of GM’s multimillion-dollar campaign.

The second extraordinary aspect of the event was the brash confidence demonstrated by the skiers in attendance. Forget personal bests—they expect to win medals in Turin.

Take Allison Forsyth, the nine-year veteran from Nanaimo, B.C. “We’re not afraid to say we’re good,” says Forsyth, 27, “and we’re determined to back that up.” Then there’s Patrick Biggs, a tall, gangly and talented 23-year-old who’s embarking on his first full World Cup season and aiming at his first Olympics. He’s more likely a medal threat at the 2010 Games, but he’s not ruling himself out in ’06. “I’m just

“We’re not afraid to say we’re good and we’re prepared to back that up.”

totally excited,” said Biggs, from Orleans, Ont. “There’s a great feeling around this team.”

Confidence is never in short supply among world-class athletes, but it’s more abundant than ever on Canadian teams these days. You don’t hear the old complaints of underfunding or poor access to training and competitions. Instead, the attitude borders on cocky. The reason? They’re better prepared than ever by a revitalized sports system in Canada.

“They’re going to the Olympics to win a place on the podium, and it’s our job to help them,” says Alex Gardiner, the COC’s director of international performance. “So that’s what we’re doing.”

Here, in a nutshell, are the COC’s predictions for the coming Games.

Officials have set a target of 25 medals and third place overall, a nearly 50-per-cent increase over the 17 medals won in 2002. They arrived at these impressive totals by adding up the Canadian medallists (28) at last season’s world championships in the various Olympic sports, and announced the targets last winter. “Last year we had one of the best winters we’ve ever had, and what you’re seeing is the continuation,” Chris Rudge, the COC’s chief executive, said at the time.

“This is indicative of some systemic changes we’ve made.”

The COC knows that past results mean nothing—Canada’s record of converting top world championship results into Olympic medals is fairly dismal. But this team has other reasons for optimism. The entire sports system is under major renovation.

Since 2003, Ottawa has nearly doubled its amateur sport budget to $140 million a year, more or less reinstating the cash that was taken away in the 1990s. The COC has increased its direct funding to top-performing athletes, and its $110-million Own The Podium program, designed to push the winter team to the top of the medal standings in 2010, is making a difference for Turinbound competitors. And with the Vancouver-Whistler Games’ marketing bonanza in view, the country’s biggest companies— BCE, Royal Bank, Petro-Canada and GM among them—are adding more millions in sponsorships.

The turnaround has surprised athletes. Suddenly there’s money for off-season training, travel to competitions, physiotherapy and technical support. Skiers, for instance, get to train in GM’s state-of-the-art wind tunnel in Michigan to improve their aerodynamics. And long-track speed skaters now have a blade technician working full-time at the Olympic Oval in Calgary.

“It’s difficult to know exactly where all the new funding is coming from,” says speed skater Clara Hughes, the only Canadian athlete ever to win medals at both Summer and Winter Games. “But compared to even a few years ago, there have definitely been huge changes for the better.” In such a positive atmosphere, it’s tough to find skeptics. But it’s also difficult to imagine winning eight more medals in 2006. The 2002 finish was a winter record for Canada, and it was achieved largely thanks to a terrific second-week performance in Salt Lake City. And it’s impossible to know

“I have everything I need to compete so now it’s up to me.”

year of

funding and some

improved sport management can so quickly make up for a decade of neglect. Besides, it wasn’t long ago that the COC and most sport federations focussed more on administration than on helping athletes. It was as if the system was designed to thwart, rather than support, competitors’ aspirations.

Efforts to improve that system took two big hits recently. Mark Lowry, the COC’s dynamic executive director for sport who helped initiate the Own The Podium plan, died of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 22. Lowry had the credibility and personality to marshal the warring factions within amateur sports. Then Liberal MP Paul DeVillers, who spearheaded a plan to gather the various sports-related offices in Ottawa in one federal ministry, quit the task when his own government refused to give sport a place at the Cabinet table. Both are blows, officials say, but not mortal.

Alpine Canada boss Ken Read says the lack of coordination among sport bodies in Ottawa is not “the optimal situation, but we’ll still get the job done.” And Gardiner says Lowry’s death was tragic, but his vision carries on. “We all believed in his vision,” Gardiner adds, “and if anything, Mark’s passing fills the rest of us with ever-greater resolve.” Optimists point to the fact that it’s not just officials who are talking big. Most athletes are, too.

Bobsleigh pilot Pierre Leuders bristled when the COC pencilled him in for two medals (twoand four-man), but most other athletes interviewed said they like the fact that their organizations are setting high goals. And they appreciate that after years of cutbacks, the push for success in 2010 is boosting their fortunes today.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do really well,” Forsyth says, “so we’re all just going to go for it.”

Hughes, meanwhile, says she has already filled out her pre-Turin preparation checklist and is ready for the challenge. “I have everything I need to compete,” she says. “So now, it’s up to me.” SN Since 1992, James Deacon has been responsible for Maclean’s Olympic coverage.