RIO DE JANEIRO — A Canadian team in "beast mode" will carry lofty ambitions into the Rio Olympics but with plenty of recent success to back it up.
The Canadians ride a wave of momentum into these Games that has included 34 top-five world championship performances in the past year, plus a strong showing at last summer's Pan American Games in Toronto.
The international results, says Canadian chef de mission Curt Harnett, show Canada is on pace to reach its goal of a top-12 finish in the final medal standings.
"Our athletes' performances on the international stage have been incredible, and have kept our athletes on track with this goal," said Harnett, a three-time Olympic cycling medallist. "It has been such an honour to see them in beast mode over the last few months on the road to Rio."
Two days before the curtain comes up on the 31st Games with the opening ceremonies, the Canadian Olympic Committee held its traditional kickoff news conference. The overriding theme was: Canada's ready.
Canada Fielding 314 Athletes
The Canadian women's soccer team got the ball rolling with a 2-0 victory over Australia on Wednesday in Sao Paolo.Harnett believes Canada's 314-member team — 186 women and 128 men — will win in the range of 19-plus medals, which would be one more than the Canadians brought home four years ago from London. Rosie MacLennan's victory in trampoline was the team's only gold, and earned her the honour of carrying Canada's flag in Friday's opening ceremonies at Maracana Stadium.Plus the absence of Russia, which was banned from competing in both track and field and weightlifting after the McLaren Report confirmed evidence of state-sponsored doping, adds another element of possibility.
Topping 20 medals would be a significant accomplishment for Canada — the last time that happened was 1996 (22 medals).
The leadup to these Games has been rife with negative news, both at home and in Brazil.
The COC was left reeling last fall when president Marcel Aubut resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment.
The fallout continued when Jean-Luc Brassard quit as chef de mission. Harnett stepped in to reprise his role at last year's Pan American Games in Toronto.
Tricia Smith, an Olympic rowing silver medallist who replaced Aubut, believes the COC is going to "come out of this a stronger and better organization."
"I think we probably have to make sure we regain the trust of Canadians because of what happened last fall, and I think we're really on the road for that," she said. "I think we're a different organization now."
In Rio, meanwhile, the plotline has been far from positive as concerns about crime, polluted water, and the Zika virus have cast a pall over the first South American host in Olympic history.
Canada lost a decent medal threat when tennis star Milos Raonic pulled out of the Games over concerns about Zika.
The COC has been in Rio for several weeks, a good chunk of which staff spent working on issues with the athletes village. The Australian team had refused to check in until problems with plumbing, among others, were fixed.
Smith said Rio's organizing committee has "exhibited resolve and determination in overcoming the obstacles they face."
Rio's polluted waterways are also raising alarm bells. An Associated Press study found that days before the Games open, the water is as filthy as ever, contaminated with raw human sewage and teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria.
The findings prompted a biomedical expert to warn travellers to Rio: "Don't put your head under water."
The COC, however, insisted they've received no negative reports about the water quality. Harnett went so far as to say "Some of the venues are coming back with water qualities in the 'excellent' range."
Canada Looks For Breakthroughs On The Track
Canada's medal run, meanwhile, will likely be lead by its mighty track and field team, which made a historic eight marches to the podium at last summer's world championships.
Swimmer Ryan Cochrane, in the 400-metre freestyle, and Jennifer Abel and Pamela Ware, in the three-metre synchro event, look to kick off the march Saturday. The women's rugby sevens team begins its quest for a medal Saturday when the sport makes its Olympic debut.
Canada is fielding five teams in Rio: women's soccer, rugby sevens and basketball, along with men's field hockey and volleyball. That's three more than London, where Canada was only represented in women's soccer and women's basketball.
Show jumper Eric Lamaze, at 48, is the oldest male athlete on the Canadian team, while rowing coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie (56) is the oldest female.
Swimmer Javier Acevedo, 18, and Shallon Olsen, who just turned 16, are the youngest.
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