Canadians shut out of medals

28 February 2010 00:48

With only one Olympic Alpine race left to go, Canada had only one last chance to take a medal in Alpine Skiing at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Going into the men's Slalom, 2009 World Championship bronze medalist and local favourite Michael Janyk was Canada's final medal hope in Alpine Skiing. But dreams that home turf advantage will finally add up to a ski medal and salvage a happy ending for the country did not come true. Janyk's best slalom result this season was a fifth place in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

In the end, Julien Cousineau was the highest Canadian finisher. The 29-year old scored the second fastest time in the second run of the slalom, to move up to 8th from 19th place, proving that Canada could do better than the final results may suggest.

The Canadian skiers wanted to deliver medals in their home Olympics, but it just didn't happen. Since the 1994 Lillehammer Games, the country has not won a medal in an Alpine skiing event.

Looking at the results in the ten medal events in Alpine skiing, it was Canada's top Alpine skier, Erik Guay, who came closest to the podium, placing fifth in downhill and fifth in super-G. His results at the home Olympics evoked memories of his frustrating fourth place in the 2006 Torino super-G, where the legendary Hermann Maier of Austria edged him from the podium by just .01 seconds to take the bronze. The other Canadian medal contenders who were expected to land a podium finish underperformed with Manuel Osborne-Paradis finishing 17th in the downhill and Robbie Dixon crashing in the downhill. In the giant slalom Dixon was 26th.

The Olympic Games are different than World Cup races that continue all season. Athletes just have one chance and need to perform well under pressure. After his gold medal run on Sunday, February 21, in the super combined, American Bode Miller commented on Guay: "I could have just as easily come in here and skied great and gotten fourth place. We've seen Erik Guay, for instance. He has been fifth twice. He was good enough to win both races, he made up time on me, from the second third to the finish in both races. You know it can go either way."

Since Ed Podivinsky of Canada won bronze in downhill at the Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games, no Canadian man or woman has won an Olympic Games medal in Alpine Skiing. In all, Canadian Men and Women have won 10 Olympic medals in Alpine Skiing, four of them Gold. Austria, by contrast, has won 101 medals.

Between 2006 and 2010, Alpine Canada has received $10.4-million in extra funding via the Own the Podium plan. Extra coaches were hired, Canadian equipment and tuck positions were tested in wind tunnels. Speed suits were re-engineered to be faster. A base-grinding machine was purchased to hone skis. A GPS-based system was developed under the Own the Podium's Top Secret program to tell skiers the optimum line to take down a hill. Canadians had some exclusive training camps at Olympic hills, learning the Dave Murray and Franz's Runs intimately when Whistler was off limits to other teams. Special accommodations were arranged so the team wouldn't have to cope with the distractions of an Olympic Village.

None of it got Canadian skiers any closer to the podium than they were in Turin. Maybe the great Own the Podium plan for success was too much? Too much expectation and pressure to win medals, too many injuries that deprived the team of podium prospects and too much investment in the magic of innovative technology may have been the reasons why Canada's Alpine skiers came up short at home.

Hopefully down the road, the Own the Podium programme, aimed at helping Canada win more medals than any other NOC at the Vancouver Games, will pay off.

"Setting big goals, ambitious goals for the team is a good thing. It's a good way to get Canadians fired up about it. The downside to that is that it does add some pressure to the athletes that are competing," Guay said.

He wondered aloud whether funds should have been allocated differently with less of a focus on technology. "The GPS thing is great in theory, but for a skier to get better, it's pretty simple: all he has to do is ski. The more you ski, the better you get," he said.

Robbie Dixon, who crashed twice on his home hill, believes that having some input from the athletes would be a good thing. "I know there are a lot of people in the office that might think they know what they're doing, but sometimes that's not always the case," he said.

Still Dixon and Guay both lauded the concept of Own the Podium, which gave the team unprecedented resources.

Guay said the program, which ran since 2005, didn't start soon enough to make Canadians dominant in Vancouver. "It doesn't take just four years to create a great team. It takes years and years of support," said Guay, who said he's interested in skiing through to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

Canada's Emily Brydon agreed with Guay that heavy investment has to continue in skiing with money extended down into the grass roots of the sport.