Sunday, February 22, 1998
Why so glum Canada?
At the Calgary Olympics a decade ago. Canadian athletes won two silver and three bronze medals. That team accomplished the rare feat of failing as the host nation to win a gold medal. Now, ten years later, Canadians will lug home a record load of 15 medals, six of them gold, and people are asking: What went wrong?
Canadian expectations for Nagano were high. On the eve of the Games, Canadian Olympic Association forecaster Carol Assalian mused about the possibility of Canada leading the nations medal standings. It was a long shot, sure, but if Canada's athletes were blessed with fine health, good luck and great performances, they might have a shot at top spot, she suggested.
"Being very conservative, we can achieve 16 medals," she said at the time. "If all the athletes perform as well as they are capable....it could be 23."
But Canada fell one medal short of even the COA's lowest estimate. With six gold, five silver and four bronze, Canadians did surpass the previous high of 13 medals (3-6-4) won in 1994 in Lillehammer. And, for the first time in Olympic history, Canada won more medals than the United States. But those accomplishment were tempered by an overall sense of underachievement.
That's not to take anything away from the likes of gold medallists Catriona Le May Doan, Pierre Leuders, Ross (second-hand smoke) Rebagliati and Annie Perreault. They were superb.
They stared down the pressure and produced the athletic performance of their lives, and deserve every bit of recognition success may bring them.
The overall team performance, however, becomes somewhat wobbly under close scrutiny.
"Sure, some people didn't have the Games we thought they'd have," said Canadian Chef de Mission Brian Wakelin. "But we have some new Canadian heroes. Every Olympics it seems that a new group of Olympic heroes emerge."
The most obvious dud was the men's hockey team. Canadians had hoped to be celebrating an Olympic gold hockey medal on the final day of the Games. Instead we're all asking is there a problem with our game or was the problem with this particular Canadian team.
A hockey gold medal would have been Canada's crowning achievement of these Olympics. It was the event the Canadians most anticipated, the gold medal that Canadians most wanted to win. We can get excited for a day or two about victories in bobsled and speedskating. But those sports aren't in our blood like hockey is. When Gretzky and Co. got bounced by the Czechs then slapped aside by the Finns, the Olympics lost a lot of their lustre.
The men's hockey team could have made amends for earlier disappointments. It couldn't have given Elvis Stojko the gold medal he so passionately craved, but it would have helped get by some of the pain. Likewise, it could help Canadians forget the disappointing gold-medal loss by the women's hockey team, or by the men's curling team, or Jean Luc Brassard's dismal time in moguls.
Instead, the Czechs knocked Team Canada out of the gold-medal game, and the Finns knocked Team Canada out of the tournament without a medal. And the Olymics ended on a downer.
And so we take a closer look at the overall results sheets to determine if, hockey aside, these were indeed the best Winter Olympics ever for Canada.
At 15, the total medal count is two more than the previous best. But if you subtract the four medals won by Canada in the new sports of women's hockey, curling and snowboarding, our medal haul in Nagano falls short of the Lillehammer total by two.
In Lillehammer, Canada ranked sixth in the nations standings for top-8 finishes with 34. Despite adding four sports, Canada slipped to 31 top-8 finishes in Nagano, ranking eighth overall. Further, according to COA stats, just 38% of Canadian athletes finished in the top-16 or top half of their event, compared to 49% in Lillehammer.
"We said 16 (medals) was our minimum," said Carol Anne Letheren, the COA's chief executive officer. "We were shy by one, but that could have come from anybody. Overall, I'd say I feel great satisfaction. This was a team that performed extremely well."
In spots, Letheran is correct. But overall Canada is finding the big lead it once held over other nations in sports such as freestyle skiing and short-track speedskating is narrowing or disappearing altogether. The same will quiclkly happen in new Olympic sports like snowboarding, curling and women's hockey. With an Olympic medal as the prize, other nations will get serious about these formerly obscure, Canadian activities.
The other lesson to be taken from Nagano is that there is a direct correlation between resources and results. Canada's long-track speedskating team won five medals and emerged as one of the strongest teams in the world.
To a skater, the Canadians attributed their success to the national training centre in Calgary which gives them year-round access not only to an outstanding athletic facility, but to coaching, medical support, trainers and other athletes.
"We came in her knowing we had one of the strongest teams in the world, and we proved it," said double medallist Le May Doan.
But despite that success, the overall Canadian performance fell below expectations. Toss in Stojko's painful silver-medal experience and Team Canada's hockey failure and, all of a sudden, the greatest Canadian Olympics ever are leaving many people feeling glum.