Wednesday's four medals--all by women--were promptly buried in the avalanche of gloom accompanying the loss that night by Canada's defending Olympic champion men's hockey team. Some $90 million of NHL talent was bounced from the Games by Russia, a turn of events team boss Wayne Gretzky called "absolutely devastating."
Nobody could say that about Canada's 24-medal total (7 gold, 10 silver, 7 bronze). That bested the previous record of 17 at Salt Lake City in 2002. But just off the podium, it gets even more interesting. Canadians posted 12 fourth-place finishes, results that coaches say point to a team that is on the way up again in Alpine skiing, and one that is gaining strength in the events added in the past 20 years. It's the reason the normally commitment-shy Canadian Olympic Committee has hatched a plan called Own the Podium 2010. The goal for Vancouver: deliver a whopping 35 medals--if the guys can hold up their end.
Logic says Canada should do well at events on ice or snow. Since the Calgary Games of 1988, Canada's medal tally has grown steadily, as has its team. (Canada sent a record 196 athletes to Torino, 39 more than went to Salt Lake City in 2002.) The number of medals up for grabs has also swelled: Calgary played host to 46 events; Torino had 84. Of the six new events in 2006, Canada medaled in three: Maelle Ricker's bronze in snowboard cross and silvers in men's and women's speedskating team pursuit.
Fully half of the events in Torino were added after 1984, and Canada excelled early, especially in those begun in the 1990s: freestyle skiing (1992), short-track speedskating (1992), women's biathlon (1994) and snowboarding, curling and women's hockey (1998). At Torino, Canada notched a pair of curling medals, making the nation six-for-six dating to 1998.
Canadians are good at sliding stones but, as CanWest sportswriter Cam Cole noted, they are pretty great at sliding headfirst on cafeteria trays. Canada is now a skeleton superpower, finishing 1-2-4 in the men's event and adding a bronze in the women's. What did the face-first sliders do right? "Even though skeleton is an individual sport, the athletes learned to work together and trust each other," says skeleton team manager Teresa Schlachter. There was a support team--coaches, sport scientists, massage therapists, video experts and nutritionists--"passionate about what they do, who worked together to help each athlete optimize their performance." The skeleton team is seeking new recruits, and it has world-ranked junior athletes waiting in the wings.
The record on snow isn't as good as the one on ice in some of the newer events. Sure, two-time World Cup-champion freestyle skier Jennifer Heil, of Spruce Grove, Alta., won gold. But after winning gold, silver and bronze in 1994, the men's freestylers missed the podium for the third straight Olympics. And no Canadian man has made a trip to an Olympic podium in snowboarding since the sport made its debut in 1998.