April 05, 2006

Canada's 2006 Performance: Part 2

In my last post I presented a recap of my own predictions of Canadian medals at the 2006 winter Olympics, and compared them to the predictions from Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press. Today I would like to look at the Canadian medal performances with an eye to the future.

A little more than a year ago, the COC initiated a performance improvement plan called Own the Podium 2010. The program aims to have Canada win more medals than any country at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver. I'm going to repeat a few of the key assumptions of OTP2010 here (emphasis mine):

  • Canada needs to win approximately 35 medals to succeed at becoming the top medal winner at the Olympic Winter Games in 2010.
  • Canada can win 35 medals in 2010 if it increases the number of potential medallists (from 160 currently identified to 211) and its success rate (from 27% in Salt Lake City to 50% in Vancouver).
  • Canada has the potential to increase the number of potential medallists in the sports of speed skating, short track, freestyle skiing, snowboard and bobsleigh. It takes eight to 12 years to develop Olympic athletes in the other sports.
  • Canada's success rate can be improved through increased Games preparation, technology, research and development, and human performance research.

As an interim goal, the COC stated that Canada could finish third in the medal table in 2006, an objective that was achieved last month.

So what can we say about the progress towards a winning performance in 2010? First of all, it probably won't take 35 medals to top the medal table, unless there is a significant increase in the number of medals awarded. A mere 30 medals would have been enough in 2006, and the general trend is that the top nations are winning less and less of the medal share.

That changes things a bit. In March of last year, I considered the chances of Canada winning 35 medals, and dismissed it as an impossible goal:

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.

Should I change my mind about that?

Figure 1

Figure 1: click to enlarge

Figure 1 — Medals totals from the 2006 winter Olympic games. The three areas show the maximum possible number that could be won by a single country; the maximum number won by any single country; and the number won by Canada (click to enlarge).

My previous analysis was based on a look at the total number of medal events in each sport, and the likelihood of Canadian success. The figure inset shows the data for 2006, including the maximum possible number of medals that could be won in each sport, the number won by the leading country in 2006, and the number won by Canada. The maximum possible allows for multiple medals in a single event, and takes into account the NOC quotas in place for 2006, which can be accessed through the Torino 2006 web site. Of course, in most sports it is completely unrealistic to imagine that one country could win all of the available medals. The number won by the leading country in 2006 is probably a better indicator of what's possible. So in the plot, where there is a big gap between Canada's performance (red) and the world leader (dark blue), that indicates some room to move up in 2010.

A year ago I provided my recipe for getting to 35 medals. Here it is again, with comments from 2006:

  • Cover all the bases in ice hockey and curling (4 medals) — in 2006, Canada won three medals, missing out in men's hockey. Expect Canada to be a medal favourite for all four events again in 2010.
  • Make sure you pick up a handful of medals in figure skating, freestyle, and snowboard (4 medals) — in 2006, Canada won one medal in each discipline for a total of three. Some bad luck probably cost a couple of medals in freestyle and snowboard. On the other hand, Jeffrey Buttle could very easily have missed out. I think that 4-6 medals is probably a realistic goal for 2010.
  • Become the world's best speed skating nation, for long and short track (15 medals) — in 2006, Canada won 12 medals in the two sports combined, more than any other country. The men's team in long track didn't win an individual medal, and could do better. On the other hand, the women's team had a dream Olympics that will be difficult to repeat no matter how strong the program is. The short track team might improve if they can make some gains on Korea (10 medals). Getting three more medals, overall, would be a great accomplishment.
  • Become a top-two nation in cross-country skiing (6 medals) — in 2006, Canada won two medals, more than ever before. One of those, a gold, came from 22-year-old Chandra Crawford. Beckie Scott, Canada's most successful cross country skier, has now retired, but Crawford and Sara Renner should continue. After the Olympics, 23-year-old Devon Kershaw won Canada's first men's World Cup medal in decades. The men's team has also added 25-year-old Russian immigrant Ivan Babikov. Babikov, racing for Russia, finished 13th in the 30 km pursuit in Turin.
  • Become a top-two nation in alpine skiing (6 medals) — in 2006, Canada did not win a medal. The team continues its upward trend, however, with 3 fourth-place finishes from a relatively young team.

I don't think that I would change this recipe a whole lot. Certainly Canada has proven that some medals are available in bobsleigh and skeleton, but it remains to be seen if this four-medal performance can be repeated. A year ago I wrote:

There are Canadian contenders in bobsleigh and skeleton, but that talent pool is aging and not very deep.

I wasn't wrong about the age of the talent pool, certainly — Pierre Leuders is 35, Lascelles Brown is 31, Jeff Pain is 35, and Duff Gibson, at 39, is the oldest athlete ever to win an individual gold medal at the winter Olympics. Melissa Hollingsworth-Richards is only 26, so she might continue to improve. But if our sliders are going to win four medals in 2010, it will be because of the next crop of athletes in the system. The OTP2012 highlights quoted above imply that these athletes don't need as much development time as in other sports, so maybe there is fresh blood circulating through Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton as we speak. But the other point I should make is that there aren't that many medals to win in these sports, and nobody won more than four in 2006. There is not going to be a big increase, certainly, in the number of medals won in bobsleigh and skeleton.

Which all leaves us just about where we were a year ago, I think. In order to come out on top, Canada is going to have to win at least half a dozen medals, combined, in alpine and cross country skiing. That will get the total up to the low 30s, and that will probably be enough. Can it happen? At this point I am inclined to say yes. It isn't a sure thing, but it looks to me like the trend is pointing in the right direction, and it isn't the stretch I thought it was a year ago.

I have just a few more thoughts about the 2006 results, including a few comments about the Canadian "success rate." But I'll save those for part 3, and I'll see if I can find a few other interesting things to post about before I get to that.

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