SPORTS

Canada's winter athletes kept up the 2010 pace at Winter Games in Sochi

12/22/2014 08:55 EST | Updated 02/21/2015 05:59 EST
CALGARY - Canada not only reinforced its status as a winter sport power in 2014, but proved to be a pretty good road team at the Winter Olympics.

The country fell one medal short of its best Winter Games performance in Sochi, Russia, in February. The host team won 26 four years earlier in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., to set the new benchmark.

To claim 25 in Russia without the advantage of home ice and snow indicates Canada's athletes stayed confident and adapted.

Canada's sport leaders — Own The Podium, the Canadian Olympic Committee, Sport Canada and the winter sport federations — have set overall medals won as the standard of success.

The stated goal for Sochi, as it was four years earlier, was to win the overall medal count.

Canada finished fourth in the overall tally behind host Russia (33), the United States (28) and Norway (26). In 2010, the Americans were first with 37 and Germany second with 30 ahead of third-place Canada.

After setting a record for gold medals at a single Winter Games with 14 in 2010, Canada wasn't far off the pace in Sochi with 10 to sit third behind Russia (13) and Norway (11).

Sweeping men's and women's gold in hockey and curling was immensely satisfying to those watching at home.

But the fertile ground coming out of Sochi is in freestyle skiing. With terrain parks in ski resorts from coast to coast, this country is a natural playground for flying off jumps on two skis and inventing tricks in the air.

Canada has depth of talent in freestyle skiing.

If you include skicross, which is governed internationally by freestyle but domestically by Alpine Canada, the freestyle team's nine medals accounted for more than a third of Canada's total in Sochi. Four times in freestyle events, there were two Canadian medallists

Canada's Paralympians again hit the target of finishing among the top three countries in gold medals won with nine in Sochi.

The host country ranked third in 2010 with 10 gold and stayed third in Sochi behind the Russians with 30 and the Germans with nine. Cross-country skier Brian McKeever collected three gold to increase his career count to 10.

Sochi tested the resiliency of Canada's athletes, coaches and support staff and will provide a template for Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

Thousands of kilometres and multiple time zones away from home again, the Canadian team will attempt to "maintain the gain", which was the mantra heading into 2014.

Peter Judge stepped out of his job as chief executive officer of the Canadian Freestyle Skiing Association post-Sochi and immediately into the role of director of winter sport for OTP.

He said the top reason for the freestyle team's success in Sochi was athletes travelled to the area at least three times for competitions or training camps prior to the opening ceremonies.

"Familiarization has always been the critical component of major Games and world championships," Judge said in Sochi. "We've always tried to be in there early and often.

"They came here, they felt at home. There was not too much weirdness at all. Having that familiarity, having that comfort, you're dealing with 80 per cent less stuff right off the bat."

Canada is keeping up the pace post-Sochi with several notable results to open the 2014-15 World Cup season.

Calgary's Sam Edney became the first Canadian male to win World Cup luge gold. Ottawa long-track speed skater Ivanie Blondin has picked up five medals, including two gold in the women's mass start.

Short-tracker Charles Hamelin of Sainte-Julie, Que., claimed four individual medals, including gold in the 1,500 metres. Moguls skier Phil Marquis of Quebec City won his first World Cup in two years.

Olympic skicross champion Marielle Thompson of Whistler, B.C., and Vancouver's Georgia Simmerling earned gold and silver respectively in their first race this winter while Calgary skeleton racer Elisabeth Vathje has won a gold and a silver in her first two World Cups.

Alpine skier Manny Osborne-Paradis of North Vancouver, B.C., kicked off his season with a downhill silver in Lake Louise, Alta.

The country's continued success depends largely on two elements: money and recruiting talented athletes into winter sport. The Canadian taxpayer is the single biggest funder of its athletes.

According to the office of the Minister of State for Sport, the federal government spent $150 million on high-performance sport in the four years between 2010 and 2014, which was an increase of $25 million over the previous quadrennial.

That figure doesn't include the Athletes Assistance Program, which provides up to $18,000 to approximately 1,800 "carded athletes" annually in direct money.

OTP allocates about $62 million of the federal government money annually to summer, winter and Paralympic sport based on medal potential.

That means if a sport federation has athletes with medal potential, they get OTP funding. If not, no money.

It's a tough-love philosophy not loved by all, particularly if you are a ski jumper or skeleton racer not getting much from OTP.

But since this system has largely produced results Canadians can feel proud of — and thus won't object paying for — it's likely here to stay for now.

Under Marcel Aubut, the Canadian Olympic Committee has aggressively pursued corporate sponsorships with a goal set in 2012 to raise $100 million by 2016.

The COC committed to diverting $37 million of it to OTP a year ago. But there are still money gaps in athletes' lives as they try to make ends meet. There's also a concerning lack of resources in some sports to develop the next generation of Olympians.

The COC is responsible for preparing athletes for the Games environment and looking after their needs on the ground.

The expenses for South Korea will be at least comparable to Russia if Canada follows the same strategy of getting athletes there early and often before 2018.

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