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The Canadian Olympic short-track speed-skating team is unveiled Thursday. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Olympic short-track speed-skating team is unveiled Thursday. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sean Gordon

Canada prepares for another assault on Olympic oval Add to ...

Sure, it’s just a garment, but you won’t find one in a store.

This jacket must be earned, and when it’s draped over your shoulders, it means you’ve joined a select group: you are a Canadian Olympian.

Even when you have a couple of others already hanging in your closet – and a gold medal or two in your safe deposit box – it’s a thrill do don a national team jacket, which this time around is a sober red-and-black number with Canada written across the chest in large white letters.

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“I think this might be my favourite one,” short-track speed-skater Charles Hamelin, a two-time Olympic champion in 2010, said with a smile. “It’s a great feeling to put it on, like when you get the jacket, it’s for real, it’s official. I’m going to Sochi.”

Yes, he is.

The voyage will also include nine other short-trackers who were on hand for the Canadian Olympic Committee’s inaugural team announcement – several more will follow this fall – ahead of the 2014 Games in Russia.

Though athletes are primarily focused on their training and preparation, it’s been difficult for them to ignore the ongoing debate over whether to boycott the upcoming Games because of the host country’s recently-adopted anti-gay law.

“Our job is to show up and compete for medals. It’s a bit of a touchy subject, but the IOC and COC have done everything they can to ensure that during the Games these laws won’t affect athletes, coaches, their families and people visiting for the Olympics,” said Hamelin, who admitted to finding the new measures “strange.”

The 29-year-old headlines the latest edition of a team that has been a constant source of medals for Canada, and has the stated goal of repeating its haul of five medals four years ago, and perhaps pick up a sixth.

“I think we have a comparable team in terms of performance to what we had in Vancouver [2010] … I’d say the women’s team has the ability to compete at a very high level against the Chinese and the [South] Koreans,” said short-track program director Yves Hamelin.

He will once again watch sons François and Charles – and de facto daughter-in-law Marianne St-Gelais – take up residence in the Olympic Village.

All three were part of the team four years ago, as were Olivier Jean, Jessica Gregg and 1,000-metre world-record holder Valerie Maltais, but there are new faces as well.

Among them: 22-year-old Charle Cournoyer, the rising star of the men’s program out of Boucherville, Que., and 22-year-old Jessica Hewitt of Kamloops.

“I’m the little kid of the group, so there’s no expectations that I’ll win anything, my advantage is I’ll be able to just race. … I think the Olympic trials were the most stressful thing I’ve ever been through, so now it’s all good,” said Cournoyer, who has five World Cup medals and one from the world championships. “To go to the Olympics at age 22 is pretty amazing, but you don’t just go to show up, you have to race to win.”

The squad also includes Marie-Eve Drolet, a 31-year-old who made her first Olympic appearance in 2002 (winning a bronze in the relay), then retired from the sport for six years; and 26-year-old Michael Gilday, a Yellowknife native who missed out on qualifying for the 2010 Games by 13/100ths of a second.

The short track has been fertile ground for Canada since it was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1992 – yielding 25 medals – and team officials believe lifting the added burden of performing before the home fans, as they did in Vancouver, fuels the hope for a strong showing in Russia.

“From the 2009 trials through to the Olympics, it was demanding for our athletes. There were a lot of expectations, a lot of media, but that’s okay, we wanted it that way,” Yves Hamelin said. “They were constantly bombarded with the message that it’s their obligation to perform. We want that message, but this time, we’ll be able to manage the dosage more easily.”

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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