Opinion | Canada is No. 3 in medals in Beijing. That’s good, but it’s not good enough

BEIJING It has been the stock procedure for two straight Olympics now. This month in the Chinese capital, as in Tokyo last summer, Canada brought its best athletes across an ocean but it wouldn’t touch a medal projection with a 10-foot pole.

If the pandemic brought too much unpredictability for informed forecasting, Canada weathered it well enough. Six months after leaving Japan with the nation’s largest Summer Olympic medal haul in a non-boycotted Games, the team in the maple leaf was heading into Sunday’s final day of competition here with 25 medals, third behind Norway and Russia. If that holds up, it will be fourth time in the past five Winter Olympics that Canada has ranked third in the hardware count — five of five if you disqualify Russia for cheating in Sochi. That’s an awfully consistent presence on the medal-haul podium.

But as much as you can make the case the lack of pre-Games expectation has been good for Canada’s performance, let’s be clear: It’s not a tradition that can continue indefinitely. Speaking to the Star as the Olympic fortnight wrapped up in the closed loop, Anne Merklinger, the CEO of the performance-funding agency Own the Podium, said the overseers of Canadian Olympic sport have an eye on a medal target in future Winter Games. The objective is ambitiously specific: Tired of finishing third, Canada is aiming for No. 1.

“A collective goal of OTP, with the Canadian Olympic Committee and the government of Canada, is to ultimately be the top winter sports nation. It’s something we want to strive for,” Merklinger said. “So that’s our focus after these Games … What’s the strategy to ultimately be the top winter sport nation in 2030 and 2034? We are relentless in driving in that direction. That’s an aspirational objective for our country.”

It’s aspirational, for sure. But it’s hardly delusional, even if catching the Norwegians won’t be easy, not when they’ve built a nation of five million into the powerhouse that was leading the medal count heading into Sunday for the second straight Winter Games. A simple explanation for the gap between Norway’s 35 medals and Canada’s 25 heading into Sunday goes like so: The Norwegians have two athletes who won five medals apiece in biathlon, a hardware-rich sport combining cross-country skiing and shooting in which Canada has scant history of success.

If there’s a reason for disappointment here, it’s that Canada, for all its medals, came into the final day of competition with just four gold ones. The International Olympic Committee, of course, ranks its medal table by number of golds, a measure that puts Canada in 11th place. You have to go back to Lillehammer in 1994 to find the last time Canada won fewer than four golds. On the upside, Canada had been doing its best to corner the market with a Canadian-record and Games-leading 13 bronze medals heading into Sunday. We might not be owning the top of the podium, in other words, but we’re dominating its third step.

“Every medal matters,” Merklinger said. “There’s no judgment on one medal being more important than the other.”

Actually, in a society so divided, there’s heartening international consensus that gold is best. But Merklinger’s agency is Own the Podium, not, say, Hoard the Gold. So you understand where she’s coming from.

“Every athlete that comes back from these Games with a medal is a role model that will inspire young boys and girls to get involved in sport and physical activity,” she said. “So certainly extraordinary congratulations to those that win gold medals. But the silver and the bronze are equally as important to what we do as an organization, to the national sport organizations, to the Canadian Olympic Committee, and to Canadians everywhere.”

When Merklinger says the team wearing the maple leaf is aiming to become the world’s preeminent winter sports nation, she’s talking about total podium finishes, not just those that land on the top step. Never mind that the only time Canada topped an Olympic medal table, in any iteration, was in Vancouver in 2010, when the host nation’s 14 golds ranked No. 1, even if its 26 total medals ranked third.

“Our investment strategy is focused entirely on helping sport organizations win medals at the upcoming Games,” Merklinger said. “It’s not an investment strategy that’s focused on gold first and foremost. It’s an investment strategy that’s focused on winning medals.”

Not all bronze medals are created equal, of course. Toronto’s Jack Crawford won bronze in alpine combined, for instance, a breakthrough that put him in an exclusive club of just four other Canadian men’s skiers who have won an Olympic medal in an alpine event. Ski jumping’s bronze in the inaugural running of the mixed team event was Canada’s first ski jumping medal — and a particularly noteworthy one considering ski jumping and Nordic combined are the only two winter sports that didn’t receive a dime of Own the Podium funding over the past four years. Merklinger said the bold decision by Canada’s ski jumpers to move their elite training base to the ski-jumping epicenter of Slovenia has made the sport a model that needs to be studied.

“Are there other examples of sports in Canada where they may need to consider a similar kind of decision?” Merklinger said.

As for a bronze near and dear to Merklinger’s heart — and the OTP CEO was on hand to witness Brad Gushue win Canada’s lone curling medal — Merklinger, a national champion curler in her day, said there’ll be a careful post-Games examination of a sport Canada eleven dominated. This was the first Olympics since the curling was reintroduced to the Games in 1998 in which Canada didn’t play for at least one gold medal.

“We are no longer the dominant country (in curling), and that’s a reality,” Merklinger said.

Merklinger said there will need to be “tremendous reflection” among curling’s power brokers in the wake of Beijing. Because, let’s face it, if Canada is serious about one day leading to a Winter Games medal table, it can’t be leaving more-than-gettable medals on the table. So expect pressure for change to curling’s Olympic attack. And expect a return to great Canadian expectations in the Winter Games.

“The biggest failure is not to try,” Merklinger said. “What is the strategy for us to try to be the top winter sport nation? We haven’t finished that yet. When we’ve done further analysis, is it in reach within 2030? I can’t answer that yet. But we are certainly going to try. We’re never going to be satisfied. Canadians are always striving for excellence in everything we do. That’s part of our DNA. That’s what we do.”

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