Canada is emerging as an Olympic powerhouse

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Before this Olympics began, Canada made a statement by making a statement.

While the United States Olympic Committee very conspicuously chose not to make any medal predictions, the Canadians came out swinging: In these Games, they wanted to win 25 medals and, more important, finish third in the total medal count.

This from a team that hasn't finished that high since the Great Depression, and which won only five medals - none gold - as host of the 1988 Games. Yet with only a weekend left, Canada is in with a chance, jostling with four nations - Norway, the US, Russia, and Austria - for the No. 2 slot behind Germany.

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It is the work of a nation with one eye already on the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where it vows to finish first. But it is also the mark of a team that - like its neighbor to the south - is finally finding its winter stride.

"There is an expectation now," says Patricia Chafe, who works with the figure-skating team. "Athletes believe they can be on the podium."

Canada's sparse Winter Olympic heritage is somewhat surprising for a country where the word "tundra" accurately describes a significant part of the landscape. But whatever America's past traumas, Canada's have been correspondingly worse. Between 1932 and 1992, Canada never finished higher than ninth in the total medal table. Only three times in that span did it win more than three medals.

After all, Canada is North American, not Norwegian, Canadians say. Canada may be thought of as a mix of Europe and America, but "in terms of sports, we're much more American," says Jim Byers of The Toronto Star. The sports Canadians stress differ from those Americans prefer - hockey and curling versus figure skating and snowboarding - but beyond that, the events of the Winter Olympics blur for both countries.

So, appropriately enough, Canada and the US have followed a similar path to Winter Olympic success. As with the US, Canada's rise up the medal table has tracked with the addition of new sports more familiar to the North American culture.

One of the signature moments of these Games for Canadians has been the sight of Jennifer Heil bumping her way to gold in the moguls. And in the 14 years since short-track skating entered the Olympics, Canada has more medals there than it has ever won in alpine skiing, bobsled, biathlon, and ski jumping combined.

"We're not a Nordic nation," says Alex Gardiner of the Canadian Olympic Committee. The addition of sports for the X Generation, he says, "has certainly helped us, too."

And just as Salt Lake City provided the focus for America's leap in the winter medal table, Vancouver has become a rallying cry for the Canadian Olympic Committee. The clear goal is to win in 2010 - the hope of a third-place finish here merely a steppingstone.

Sean Smyth is on board. At the opening-round hockey match between Canada and Finland, the maple-leaf bedecked fan spouted the Canadian Olympic Committee's mantra with conviction: "We're going to win 25 medals and end up third in the medal table!"

Perhaps it is a bit ambitious, others say, but that's good. "It's a tall order, but it's better than saying, 'We want to be fifth,' " says Byers, suggesting that 21 or 22 medals is a more likely result.

And Canada already shows clear signs of progress at Turin. As of Wednesday morning, the country had nine fourth-place finishes along with its 15 medals. "It tells us what it's going to be like in 2010," says Gardiner.

Athletes say the goal - whether or not the team makes it - has helped give the nation a new focus on winter sports. "We're seeing a real progression in funding of Olympic sports because of it," says Steve Dionne, whose daughter, Diedra, is an aerialist here and won bronze in Salt Lake. "So often in amateur sports if you don't have a goal, you don't get the sponsorship."

And for Canada, the goal has been the winter, not the summer Games. For one, it makes climatic sense. "The Canadian public just loves winter sports," says Chafe. "These are things that are a part of our lives for a good four to five months of the year."

Moreover, the competition is not so daunting. "You can't beat the Aussies in swimming, and you can't beat the Americans in track and field," says Byers.

In men's skeleton, however, Canada slid to a gold and silver here, and speed skater Cindy Klassen has become the first Canadian woman to ever win three medals at one Games.

"The bar was set high, but realistically," says Chafe. "We've been pleased with the performances across the board."

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