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Canada's Alex Gough speeds down the track during the luge team relay competition at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center February 13, 2014. (ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS)
Canada's Alex Gough speeds down the track during the luge team relay competition at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center February 13, 2014. (ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS)

Canadian lugers finish fourth in relay after week of near misses Add to ...

This was not a week of triumph for Canada’s luge team, but it was a week of progress.

The lugers – a collection of Calgarians who grew up sliding on the track built for the 1988 Winter Olympics – came to the Sochi Games hoping to break through and win Canada’s first Olympic medal in the sport.

Expectations were raised by a strong World Cup season in which the Canadian flag become a regular feature at medal ceremonies. But this was a week of near-misses, with Thursday’s fourth place in the team relay marking the third consecutive day Canadian lugers stood just beside, but not on, the podium.

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“It is brutal. It sucks and is not easy. It is even harder for …my teammates. We wanted this so bad, not only for us and our program, but for all of Canada,” said Sam Edney, after he, Alex Gough and the doubles team of Justin Snith and Tristan Walker finished one-tenth of a second in behind third-place Latvia.

The Canadians were left muttering about repeatedly coming so close, but never touching a medal. Gough finished fourth in the women’s singles race last Tuesday, while Snith and Walker came fourth in the doubles event last Wednesday.

Relay team luge is a new Olympic event, with each country icing a women’s racer, a men’s racer and a doubles team. Sliders sat up as they reached the bottom of the 1.3-kilometre track and punched a button to allow their teammates to start racing.

Germany completed a clean sweep of the four gold medals in luge, winning the team relay with a combined time of 2 minutes 45.649 seconds, a full second ahead of second-place Russia.

The German luge relay squad was effectively the sport’s all-star team: Natalie Geisenberger, Felix Loch and the doubles team of Tobias Arlt and Tobias Wendl had all won gold medals in their respective races this week, before handily winning the relay.

While the Germans have dominated the sport since it was introduced to the Olympics in 1964, the Canadian program is a fast-rising one, particularly since the hiring of coach Wolfgang Staudinger in 2007.

Canada famously went medal-less at the 1988 Games in Calgary (Staudinger, then competing for West Germany, won a doubles bronze), but gained sporting infrastructure it didn’t have before – and a generation of inspired future athletes.

All eight lugers who competed for Canada in Sochi were either born in Calgary, or live there now.

“We’re all … legacy babies. The only reason that we’re all into luge is because we have a track in our backyard,” 23-year-old Arianne Jones said after her 13th-place finish in women’s singles last Tuesday. She predicted the construction of the Whistler Sliding Centre for the 2010 Winter Olympics would give Canadian luge a similar boost in the future.

“Having Whistler, and having the track there, is so huge for our program. … I have no doubt that in a few years you’ll start seeing some of those B.C. kids on our national teams.”

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon