March 02, 2005

Own The Podium — What Are The Chances?

So the COC wants to win 35 medals in 2010; in other words, they want to finish first in the medal table. At the same time, they've set clear priorities for supporting certain sports over others, a decision which I support, but some others do not.

Can this work? Given Canada's sporting strengths and weaknesses, is it even possible to finish first in the medal table?

The table below lists the winter Olympic sports, with the total number of medal events in 2002, and the priority (1, 2, or 3) assigned to each sport in the Own the Podium plan. There were 78 medal events in 2002; that number may change slightly by 2010, as events are added and subtracted from the program. The last column gives a vague impression (mine) of Canada's medal chances in the sport. This is, admittedly, based on current successes, which may or may not be valid in five years time.

Canada's winter sports priorities and available medals.
Discipline Medal Events OTP Priority Canada's chances
Curling 2 1 Very Good
Figure Skating 4 1 Fair
Ice Hockey 2 1 Very Good
Speed Skating 10 1 Very Good
S.T. Speed Skating 8 1 Very Good
Total Priority 1 26 1 Very Good
Alpine Skiing 10 2 Improving
Cross Country Skiing 13 2 Improving
Freestyle Skiing 4 2 Good
Snowboard 3 2 Good
Total Priority 2 30 2 Improving?
Biathlon 8 3 Poor
Bobsleigh 3 3 Fair
Luge 3 3 Very Poor
Nordic Combined 3 3 Very Poor
Skeleton 2 3 Fair
Ski Jumping 3 3 Very Poor
Total Priority 3 22 3 Very Poor

So, how is Canada planning to get to 35 medals?

Although Canada is historically a strong performer in all of the priority 1 sports, the total number of medal events is only 26. I think that 20 medals in this category would be an overwhelming, stunning success. Canada is dominant in ice hockey and curling, but there are only four medals up for grabs. Let's assume that we can hold onto one in figure skating; that makes five.

How tough would it be to win 15 medals in the two speed skating disciplines? Very tough. In Salt Lake City, Canada won 3 medals in long track and 6 in short track. The top countries in long track (Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S.) won eight medals each; the top country in short track (China) won seven. The top combined total in 2002 was 11 by the U.S. So to get to 15 Canada would have to be the best in the world in both disciplines. This is not an impossibility — we're already pretty good — but it's a big step up.

On the other side of the coin, it's pretty clear that Canada can't count on getting any medals in priority 3 sports. We once won a medal in ski jumping — in 1924. In biathlon, all three of Canada's medals were won by one athlete, long since retired. There has never been a Canadian medallist in luge or nordic combined. There are Canadian contenders in bobsleigh and skeleton, but that talent pool is aging and not very deep. Now that Own the Podium has placed a lower priority on these sports, they are not going to get the funding they would need to make a sudden turnaround.

That leaves priority 2, where all hope of reaching 35 medals rests on the cross-country and alpine ski teams. Canada will probably pick up a couple of medals in snowboard and freestyle, but there just aren't that many medals to go around. You can't be the top country at the winter Olymics without a top-tier cross-country or alpine team — preferably both.

Canada has won a total of one medal in cross-country skiing. Ever. We have had some recent success, but that's all relative. It's great that Canada's atheletes are now legitimate contenders on the world stage, but can we translate that into a handful of medals by 2010? I have my doubts. The top country in Salt Lake City was Norway, with 11 medals. Italy won six.

The Canadian alpine ski team, meanwhile, has won ten medals in the history of the winter Olympics ― the last in 1994. Recently, there has been a clear upward trend, but consider this: the top country in 2002 was world powerhouse Austria, with nine medals. Nobody else won more than four.

Given the numbers, there are only so many ways that you can get to 35. So here's what has to happen to accomplish the Own the Podium goals:

  • Cover all the bases in ice hockey and curling (4 medals)
  • Make sure you pick up a handful of medals in figure skating, freestyle, and snowboard (4 medals)
  • Become the world's best speed skating nation, for long and short track (15 medals)
  • Become a top-two nation in cross-country skiing (6 medals)
  • Become a top-two nation in alpine skiing (6 medals)
I'll be accused of being "too Canadian" for saying so, but: there's almost zero chance that this is going to happen in five years.

Of course, it is still worthwhile to make the attempt, in my opinion, and Canada's winter Olympic performance will almost certainly improve as a result. I can see the COC's difficulty, really: you can't step up to the microphone and boldy state, "our goal is to finish second in 2010." Sometimes, to be successful, you have to set an unrealistic goal. I wonder, though, if the public really understands just how unrealistic this one is.

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