Canada aims to 'Own the Podium' at Vancouver Olympics

Mild-mannered Canada? Think again. The host of the Vancouver Olympics has been on a five-year national drive to win the most medals.

By , Staff Writer

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    Canada's freestyle moguls skier Jennifer Heil trains Tuesday on Cypress Mountain ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
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In 2006, Canadian athletes won a record 24 medals in the Winter Olympics. But they were just seconds from grabbing 13 more, trapped in fourth-place finishes.

This year, Canada is determined to convert those medal contenders into a formidable arsenal of athletes that will win more medals than any other country at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The boldness of host Canada’s $110 million "Own the Podium" program, initiated five years ago to improve everything from the speed of a snowboard to the psychology of a speedskater, has taken some by surprise – not least of all its southern neighbor. But just because Canadians are friendly doesn’t mean they don’t want to win.

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“[The world] maybe thought that we didn’t want it because we weren’t at that level,” says Regan Lauscher of Canada’s luge team, which is now within striking distance of winning the country’s first medals in the sport. “We always did want to win and we always did want to excel.”

The luge team has drawn particular attention for dropping a reciprocity agreement dating back to 1980, under which the US and Canada gave each other extra runs ahead of major competitions. While that caused some grumbling, Canadian athletes say they have every right to capitalize on their unique opportunity as Olympic host.

“They thought they could squeeze in an extra few runs, barter for more, and that we would say, ‘Sure,’ ” adds Lauscher. “But finally, we just said, we want to win – not because we wanted to disadvantage anyone else, but because we wanted to give ourselves the best advantage."

Breakout at Torino

Since their breakout performance at the 2006 Torino Games, where Canada was only one medal behind the US and improved its 2002 haul by 50 percent, Canadians have built momentum for an even more impressive showing here – with plenty of red maple flags and hometown fans urging them on.

Consider:

  • In 2002, Canada won no medals in skeleton. In Torino, they won three.
  • In cross-country skiing, only four years after winning the country’s first medal in a women’s event, Beckie Scott led a trio of women to medal performances. Since then, the men’s team has come on strong.
  • Speedskaters improved on their nine medals from 2002 with 12 in Torino.
  • The two-man bobsled team turned in Canada’s third medal-winning performance in the entire history of the sport and is now ranked sixth in the world.

And that’s just in the more traditional sports. The addition of X-Games sports has favored Canada and the US. This year, Whistler native Maella Ricker is ranked No. 1 going into the Olympic snowboard cross event.

While two-time Olympic host Canada failed to win gold in Montreal or Calgary, it looks nearly certain they won’t let that happen again.

The 'Top Secret' program

The Canadians are following a well-worn pattern, with the US ramping up winter sports ahead of the 2002 Games and Beijing funding a massive bid to win more gold medals than any other country – which it did. London, too, is ramping up ahead of the Summer Games two years from now.

But the extent of Canada’s OTP program – a coordinated nationwide push between sport federations, corporate sponsors, sports-science experts, and technological innovation – is unprecedented in Canadian history, said Gary Lunn, the federal minister of state for sport, in a press conference on Tuesday.

In five years, Canada did what other countries like Australia have taken 20 years to do, added Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee and chair of Own The Podium Steering Committee.

One of the key components of the new arsenal is the $8 million Top Secret program, which has tapped the relatively cheap labor of universities to create something akin to Berlin’s infamous FES Institute that fueled the East Germans’s success.

Headed up by biomechanist Todd Alligner, the program required confidentiality agreements from athletes involved – some of whom took the secrecy game further. Snowboarders, who have been fine-tuning a new elevated plate that puts a buffer between their feet on the bumpy terrain, took pains to hide the plates with duct tape until Top Secret’s weapons were unleashed in the final run-up to the Games.

Alpine skiers, meanwhile, have been using Honeywell’s HG1700 missile-guidance system to track their exact line down a course and determine the optimal route, according to an in-depth exclusive by the Canadian magazine McLean’s. While athletes from other countries will be gauging how to ski the courses in Whistler during a handful of training runs, Canadians will have the benefit of having dissected them with the help of the "GPS STEALTH."

There are numerous other examples: a contraption to pull speedskaters up to race speed so they can practice more high-speed turns without tuckering out; weather forecasting to aid with the selection of the best skis and wax for Whistler’s unpredictable conditions – decisions that can mean the difference between a medal and 10th place; and funding for foreign coaches with unparalleled expertise.

Lugeing for dollars

But despite the influx of cash ahead of Vancouver – $66 million of which came from Canada’s taxpayers – not all sports have found it sufficient.

A year ago today, the luge team was sliding down a tobogganing hill in Calgary with For Sale signs on their helmets – a spectacle designed to secure a title sponsor.

It worked. A financial services company called Fast Track Group offered them $1 million over five years – sweetening the deal today with a pledge to pay an additional $1 million for a gold medal here.

The biathlon team also took matters into their own hands when funds that had initially been boosted began to dwindle amid a tough economic climate. Top woman biathlete Zena Kocher was having trouble finding a sponsor when a chance meeting sparked an unorthodox but not unprecedented fundraising idea: a nude calendar of the team.

“Basically, I was walking down the street and saw [cross-country skier] Sara Renner. And she said, ‘You know, you should do a calendar – we were extremely successful in 2001.’”

Kocher spearheaded the project, which brought in $100,000.

“You have to be creative in tough economic times,” says luge athlete Meagan Simister. “Those that actually made an effort to seek funding [were successful]. We could not be here, at the level we’re competing at, without that funding.

“It’s our home country, we’re hosting the world, we’ve spent I don’t know how many millions in taxpayer dollars – we have home-field advantage and we’re going to use it.”
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