Canada eyes best-ever Winter Olympic showing in Calgary

``O Canada'' may be among the most unpretentiously beautiful and regal anthems in the world. Citizens of Alberta and the nine other Canadian provinces only hope it won't become a musical bookend at the 15th Olympic Winter Games - played only during the opening and closing ceremonies. Canadians may not have a reputation as zealous patriots, but they'd like to see at least one of their own win a gold medal, then stand at attention as the strains of ``O Canada'' fill Olympic Plaza in downtown Calgary.

Toward that end, something called the Best Ever program was initiated by the Canadian government five years ago. The idea was to encourage the host country to shine athletically, not simply organizationally, at an Olympics where $200 million has been spent on new facilities for the first Winter Games on Canadian soil.

The program has funneled $25 million over a five-year period into developing all the various teams that constitute Canada's Winter Olympic squad.

Canada has not exactly been a winter sports pauper, winning medals in each Olympics. In 1984, for example, it won four medals, two golds and a bronze by speed skater Gaetan Boucher, and a silver by figure skater Brian Orser. Both athletes are competing again this time, with Orser a leading candidate for gold.

Still, there is a sense that Canada should compare better with other frost-belt nations. Norway, after all, has averaged 11.4 medals at each Winter Olympics; Finland, 7.2; and Sweden, 5.7.

``The fact is, our winter sports tradition is confined to just a few sports - hockey, figure skating, and to a certain degree Alpine skiing and speed skating,'' says Abby Hoffman, director general of Sport Canada, an arm of Canada's department of fitness and amateur sport.

Hockey, of course, is the national passion, the sport Canadians invented and the one in which they take the most chauvinistic pride. But even here, they've had to take a back seat at recent Olympics. The team won its last gold in 1952, and its last hockey medal of any kind (bronze) in 1968.

Clearly, the logical time to reestablish Canada's excellence in this sport is now, as the world focuses its athletic attention on Calgary.

The Best Ever program has given a lift to the hockey team, which appears poised to bid for the gold after winning the Izvestia tournament in Moscow in December. But the program has also endeavored to provide greater depth to the whole Canadian effort. Rather than just enhancing existing strengths, it has come to the aid of sports that have practically no history of success by Canadian athletes - bobsled, luge, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and Nordic combined.

Traditionally, Canada has finished 11th to 15th in the overall winter results, but this year it could move into the top 10. ``My personal prediction is that we will win more medals than we have since 1932 [seven] and maybe more than ever before,'' says Otto Jelinek, the government's minister of state for fitness and amateur sport.

Besides Orser and the hockey team, other medal contenders are figure skater Elizabeth Manley, and ice dancing team Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall. Also mentioned as medal hopefuls were Alpine skiers Laurie Graham and Rob Boyd.

Rather than strictly emphasizing medals, however, the Canadians are looking to improve their top-eight placements from four sports in 1984 to twice that many this time.

Government sponsorship will remain strong, according to Jelinek, regardless of how the Canadian athletes do. In his opinion, the Best Ever program has already improved overall athletic performance and levels of participation.

But some suspect that corporate funding, now 40 percent of the total, may dry up after the games. Private funding has doubled during Jelinek's three years as minister, and he is working vigorously to keep private donors on board. ``The world doesn't end after Feb. 28,'' he tells them.

It takes years to build what are called high-performance dilivery systems for national sports organizations.

Canada started a little too late in the 1970s, when it tried to gear up for the Montreal summer Olympics with a Best Ever-type effort called Game Plan. Canada gained an unwanted distinction at that competition when it became the first host nation without a gold medalist.

Nevertheless, the Montreal games gave a ``tremendous boost'' to Canada's sports system, says Richard Pound, Canada's chief representative in the International Olympic Committee. ``We acually won a lot more medals [11] than in previous years,'' he notes.

The long-term effects of this boost are still being felt, notably at the '84 Los Angeles summer Olympics, where the Canadians won an eye-opening 44 medals.

The fact that there is also a $37 million summer Best Ever program for the Games in Seoul indicates that Canadians aren't simply trying to enhance their sports image on home turf.

When it comes to sports, a wilted maple leaf just won't do. And here in Calgary, a lot of folks would love to see it starched upright at the top of a flagpole, as the band strikes up ``O Canada.''

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