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A year out from 2010, Canada's athletes face their country's expectations

Canada's athletes have mixed feelings about their country's goal of winning the most medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Some embrace the challenge, others criticize it and some just ignore it.

Canada's athletes have mixed feelings about their country's goal of winning the most medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Some embrace the challenge, others criticize it and some just ignore it.

The Canadian Olympic Committee has set an ambitious target for its athletes. It means winning about 30 medals in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., a year from now. Canada's previous high was 24 in at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.

It also means finishing ahead of powerhouse Germany, which topped the standings with 29 medals in Turin.

"We want to have more of an American approach to it, be more aggressive," said Toronto figure skater Patrick Chan. "We want the medal. . . not 'I'll try and get the medal,' but 'We want the medal."'

The 31st Winter Olympic Games open Feb. 12, 2010, and close 17 days later. The Paralympics follow March 12-21 and the Canadian team's intention is a top-three finish in gold medals won.

Canada's 2010 team will be the best prepared of any in history given the millions of taxpayer and corporate dollars flowing to the athletes in the years leading up to these Games.

Own The Podium is a five-year, $120-million program launched in 2005 to help the host Olympic and Paralympic teams reach their objectives.

The "participate and do your best" attitude Canadians traditionally have towards their Olympians is changing because of the massive investment in 2010. The message now is "produce medals."

When a handful of athletes were asked recently about the Own the Podium goal, most were upbeat about taking the lion's share of Olympic medals. But do they really think Canada can beat the rest of the world on ice and snow, when it's never been done before?

"I think we have to believe that," said alpine skier Emily Brydon of Fernie, B.C. "You have to put the intention out there and you have to really believe that you can do it in order for it to happen. You have to almost have that ego."

Moguls skier Jennifer Heil won gold on the first day of the 2006 Games in Turin. Canada went on to win a record number of medals at a Winter Games and tied for third in total medals won.

The 25-year-old from Spruce Grove, Alta., could again be Canada's bellwether as Heil is on the Cypress Mountain course the day after the opening ceremonies. Should she win, she would become the first Canadian to capture an Olympic gold medal on home soil. No Canadians won gold in Montreal in '76 or Calgary in '88.

"It's really changed a lot, the attitude of Canadians and the attitude of people running sports," Heil said. "We're now focused on excellence."

The 2004 report that was the genesis of Own The Podium determined 35 medals was a realistic target in 2010 if there were major changes and more money in Canada's sport system.

The COC chose a moving target of more medals than the rest of the 84 participating countries, whatever that number turns out to be.

Alpine skier Erik Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que., says the COC's goal is unfair.

"The guys who set those objectives, it's pretty easy to sit behind a desk and say we are going to win all these medals, we're going to be the best winter country out there, just kick everybody's ass," he said. "It's not that easy.

"I think that was a mistake. When you are saying things like that it is added pressure to athletes."

Skeleton racer Jon Montgomery of Russell, Man., has similar concerns.

"It might be reaching a little bit and perhaps putting a little undue pressure on some athletes that aren't necessarily medal potential," he explained. "It's an ambitious goal to undertake.

"I think coming into it with a little less notoriety and a little less pressure might benefit some of the athletes. I can only worry about myself and I'm just going to do that on race day and hopefully get there and get it done."

Canada's Olympians are preoccupied with their own races and performances. Most live in a bubble of competition and training where there's isn't room to worry about how many medals Canada will take in 2010.

The host country's success will turn on the long-and short-track speedskaters, whose medal intake is expected to be about 15.

"This isn't something that we're thinking about every day," Olympic champion speedskater Clara Hughes said. "If I thought in those terms, it's way too much pressure."

Six-time Olympic medallist Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg agreed with her teammate.

"When we go to compete, I don't think we should be focused on the medals because that could put too much pressure on us," Klassen said.

The International Olympic Committee ranks countries according to gold medals won, but the COC isn't distinguishing between medal colour. Any step on the podium will do.

"We have never gone down the road of talking about gold medals," said COC chief executive officer Chris Rudge. "We're not there yet. I think we're still in an evolutionary stage.

"It would be premature to only measure ourselves on gold medals right now, particularly going into a Games at home where we haven't won one gold medal before."

But Own The Podium head Roger Jackson wouldn't be satisfied with 30 bronze medals in 2010.

"Me being me, I'd say 'What's wrong? We had a whole bunch of chances at gold,"' said the former Olympic gold medallist in rowing.

"You sit at the start line and it's you or the Russian or the American or the German or whoever wants it the most, right? Do you have the courage, if you're in second, third or fourth place to battle back?"

Canada is currently running second to Germany in World Cup medals won this winter.

The German government spent about 214 million euros (C$339 million) on sport in 2008 and has 20 multi-sport Olympic centres across the country catering to its elite athletes. The Canadian government is spending a high of $166 million in 2008-09 and there are six sport centres from coast to coast.

"It's going to be a challenge to go after them and actually catch them, but we're trying," Jackson said of the Germans.

Russia will make a push for medals in Vancouver as the host of the next Winter Games in 2014, as Canada did in 2006. The U.S., Norway and Austria will take their share and the high-revving Chinese sports machine could surprise in a few events.

The expectations of Canada's Olympians may be the highest ever, but the financial support for them now is unprecedented.

From the hiring of foreign coaches for their expertise to analysis of snow composition in Whistler in order to have the best waxes in 2010, they've never had it this good.

"The resources right now are incredible," Hughes said.

Their medical and physiotherapy needs are paid for, injured athletes are aggressively rehabilitated and there are university labs in Canada working feverishly on improving aerodymamics of bodies and equipment under OTP's Top Secret project.

"If we'd set strong goals or aggressive goals and we hadn't invested in programs to help the athletes get there, that would be a different matter, but I think we've backed up the ambition with an investment in success," Rudge said.

And because of the increase in support, there's confidence in the athletes' community that the COC's goal is attainable. There's also a desire to pay Canadians back for their investment.

"I think Canada can do it and I think the main reason we can do it is because five, six years out we established Own The Podium and started funding right away," said luge team slider Jeff Christie of Vancouver. "It hasn't been that we're going to throw money at it a year out or two years out and say 'Do it.'

"OTP has put the money in. I hope come Vancouver in 2010 that we show that money has proven us right and Canada comes out No. 1."

Canada might be reaching for the stars in 2010, but Brydon is excited by the vision of a mass of medals clanging on the host country's chest.

The 2010 goal and the investment Canadians made in it make the dream seem more like reality to her.

"They've made us believe," Brydon said. "I think sometimes if you're made not to believe in your true potential, you just settle for mediocre."

- With files from Canadian Press reporters Jim Morris, Lori Ewing and Greg Joyce.

 
 
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