TORONTO (Reuters) - Twice, Canada has hosted an Olympic Games and failed to win a single gold medal on home territory.
Determined not to repeat the embarrassment at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the country is putting its money where its mouth is and backing up uncharacteristic bravado with millions of dollars in funding and incentives.
In 1976 Canada became the only country to stage a Summer Games and not celebrate a victory; 12 years later at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary there was again no gold for the home team.
While the Olympic spotlight is currently focused firmly on August’s Beijing Summer Games, Tuesday marked the start of the two-year countdown to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and Canada is serving notice that it is not going to be such an obliging host this time.
“It’s our objective that our anthem is played loudly and frequently,” Chris Rudge, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) told Reuters.
”We established a unique new programme that we are never again going to repeat the ignominious record of hosting two Olympic Games and not winning a gold medal.
”The winter sports told us if we got them a certain level of commitment and resources they could be number one in the world.
”So that’s the objective the sport community has set for 2010 and we think that within that mix of medals there will be a certain number of gold medals.
“While it is ambitious and un-Canadian to talk about performing like that, we felt it was time we did start to assess what we are capable of and set very clear goals and objectives. Everyone else in life does it...why not in sport?”
The “Own the Podium” programme, funded equally by the federal government and the Vancouver organizing committee, will give Canadian high-performance winter athletes $110 million in support while corporate sponsors will pump millions more into putting Canada top of the medal table.
The effort includes a “Top Secret Project” that brings together sports scientists, doctors and researchers to seek out ways to give Canadian athletes an edge by looking at nutrition, equipment and weather and snow conditions.
For the first time Canada will offer money incentives for athletes to win medals. Starting in Beijing, gold-medal winners will receive $20,000 while silver medalists will earn $15,000 and bronze winners $10,000.
Even if such an incentive had existed at the 1988 Calgary Games there would have been no impact on the national budget as Canadians got just five medals -- two silver and three bronze.
In the 20 years since Calgary, Canada has made a slow, steady climb up the medals table at Winter Games, taking 13 in Lillehammer, 15 in Nagano, 17 in Salt Lake City and 24 in Turin, where the team were third behind Germany and the United States in terms of total medals won.
”Turin was the first litmus test of whether that new approach had an impact and it did,“ said Rudge. ”We were third, one medal behind the Americans and only five behind the Germans and we had 14 fourth-place finishes.
“I think the overall gap between us and the Germans is less than it was last year. So that is a good indicator at this point that we are well on track and being number one is not an unrealistic goal.”
According to midseason statistics compiled by Own the Podium across the Winter Olympic sports, as of December 31, Germany had 93 World Cup podium finishes followed by Canada with 88 and the United States a distant third with 64.
The results indicate Canada is continuing to close the gap on the Germans, who had 88 podium places at the same point a year ago followed by Canada with 64.
”This year we’re looking for more improvement and we’ve already achieved that,“ said Roger Jackson, the CEO of Own the Podium. ”One of the indicators we look at is the number of World Cup podiums we have in Olympic disciplines.
“Last year we had 135 World Cup podiums, second only to Germany, this year we’re probably going to be over 150.”
That success on the World Cup circuits is expected to translate into an avalanche of medals in 2010.
In Vancouver, the men’s and women’s ice hockey and curling teams will bear the brunt of the golden expectations but medals are expected to come from almost every discipline.
Under the direction of Ken Read the men’s and women’s Alpine ski teams have emerged as medal threats.
The men’s squad led by Erik Guay has rekindled memories of Read’s Crazy Canucks while the women are enjoying a breakout World Cup campaign with Britt Janyk and Emily Brydon taking maiden wins.
Steve Omischl, twice overall freestyle skiing World Cup aerials champion and Turin Olympic moguls champion Jennifer Heil will be looking for more gold while the speed skating oval is expected to bear rich rewards with Denny Morrison, Jeremy Wotherspoon and Cindy Klassen -- who won five medals in Turin -- leading the charge.
Bobsleigh pilot Pierre Lueders, who won gold in Nagano and silver in Turin, will be back for one last hurrah.
“We’re not going to let people walk into our country and walk all over us, that’s for sure,” Lueders told the Toronto Star.
Editing by Clare Fallon