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Mark McMorris during his first run on the snowboard slopestyle course February 6, 2014. McMorris failed to qualify and has another attempt Saturday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Mark McMorris during his first run on the snowboard slopestyle course February 6, 2014. McMorris failed to qualify and has another attempt Saturday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Sochi 2014

MacGregor: Canada finds its killer instinct Add to ...

The ugly Canadian?

Not possible, surely, but make no mistake – Canada is changing.

In fact, Anne Merklinger says it has already happened.

“I believe we are a different nation after Vancouver,” says the chief executive officer of Own the Podium, the government- and privately-funded organization that helped Canada to a record 14 Olympic gold medals four years ago.

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This transformation is a common conversation among Canadian Olympic organizers. The incredible success in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., in 2010 gave Canadian athletes a new confidence and Canadians in general an out-of-character swagger when it comes to games that are played on ice or snow.

You just don’t hear that old line about the national motto being “Go for Bronze!” these days. You certainly won’t hear it in Sochi.

Chef de mission Steve Podborski was talking Thursday about his time as one of the successful Crazy Canucks alpine ski team a generation ago, and how this country didn’t always seem entirely comfortable with actually winning.

“It was … not quite frowned upon,” Podborski says. “But you may remember it was all about participation and being fit, and if you dared to want to be No. 1, it was kind of like going too far.”

No longer. Now, they aim directly at No. 1, and are even saying Canada will become the first nation to twice exceed its medal total in the first Games after one it played host to.

Canada did it in Albertville, France, following the 1988 Calgary Games – but that was relatively simple as Canadians did not shine in Calgary, winning only five medals (two silver, three bronze). Four years later in France, they won seven (two gold, three silver, two bronze).

To accomplish this feat again would require more than the 26 medals (14 gold, seven silver, five bronze) won in Vancouver.

“Canada is here to compete – and win,” Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut told a press conference Thursday. And he repeated the goal was a greater haul in Sochi.

“Some nights, I can’t sleep because I said it so many times. This is how Canadians are built. We are not here to participate – we are here to win.”

It is unlikely Canadians will become as jingoistic as their chanting neighbours – “U!S!A!, U!S!A!, U!S!A!” – but still, this new cockiness can have its downside.

When American snowboard star Shaun White pulled out of the slopestyle event – he still intends to defend the halfpipe gold he won in Vancouver – it was Canadian competitors who took to Twitter to trash-talk him.

“Shaun knows he won’t be able to win the slopes,” Maxence Parrot tweeted, “that’s why he pulled out. He’s scared!”

Parrot later deleted his tweet and did the Canadian thing, apologized, but even so, there is little debate the victories in 2010 had a great effect on Canadian athletes.

“They are more confident as a result of our success in Vancouver,” Merklinger says, “and more carrying that kind of confidence, swagger, and a belief that Canadian athletes will win, want to win and can win. That’s very much the legacy from Vancouver.

“The strength of Canada’s success in winter sports permeates everything that happens in our country.”

The Own the Podium program has recently had its funding increased by $14-million, so it is now $89-million over four years. And Merklinger thinks this money is well-spent, as it not only obviously helps the athletes, but has added value for the country as a whole.

“I believe we are a different nation after Vancouver than we were going into the Games,” she says. “Certainly the government of Canada recognizes how important it is for us to be successful in high-performance sport.

“It is a means to build communities, to build our civic pride. Every one of the athletes who wins a medal here will go back and it’s a whole new generation of heroes that will have been created who will come back and inspire our youth, get them off their couches and get involved in sport and physical education.

“We’re a healthier nation after Vancouver. I firmly believe that.”

And if a bit cocky, so what?

“We will not stand in front of [our athletes] and say ‘We will strive to be pretty good,’” Podborski says.

“Pretty good” is just not good enough.

Asked when he anticipated Canada’s first medal in the long count to surpass the more than two dozen collected in Vancouver, he did not give it a moment’s thought.

“Day 1.”

 

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