The moon floated at the same height at all times, a bright light on the horizon. It was late October and pitch black, the temperature down near -30 C, the winds blustery. Steve Podborski and an international Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics delegation had sailed for five days aboard a Russian nuclear-powered ice breaker to the North Pole, to carry the Olympic torch where it had never gone before.
The ship’s captain remarked, while sailing northward from the Russian port of Murmansk, that the vessel had never made the journey in October, and he wasn’t sure how things would go. The first day featured such violent seas that numerous passengers were waylaid, badly ill, in their cabins.
“Rough would be a vast understatement,” said Podborski, Canada’s chef de mission for the Sochi Games. At the North Pole, he carried the torch off the deck, down a set of stairs and out on the ice, handing it off to a Swede. It was 9:30 p.m. Moscow time. The ship was at the Pole for a dozen hours and headed back.
“It was a wonderful adventure,” the 56-year-old Podborski said. “The Russians are good showmen. When we get to Sochi, the Russians will get it done.”
To Podborski, the journey to the Pole was a metaphor for the Games, an ambitious idea pulled off somewhat haphazardly. The Sochi Games will be a particularly complex challenge for team executives such as Podborski. They are the most expensive Olympics ever, Summer or Winter, a cost of more than $50-billion to erect the apparatus of a winter sports festival in a beach resort on the Black Sea and nearby mountains. And the potential for chaos is rampant. There is the churning controversy over human rights surrounding the Russian law aimed against gay people, which countries are already quietly protesting. And a potentially larger issue looms: the spectre of regional terrorism, with the proximity of not-long-ago wars in Chechnya and Georgia and recent threats against the Games. Security will be omnipresent, and intense.
It is Podborski’s job to help Canada deliver results on the investment of more than $100-million in the 221 athletes the country is sending, shielding Team Canada from the messy unpredictability of Sochi. His title of chef de mission doesn’t immediate resonate with non-French speakers – “fire up the sushi knives,” joked Podborski, whose livewire comments oscillate between serious and irreverent. The role, head of the mission, encompasses myriad jobs: chief fixer, cheerleader, consoler, a prominent face and personality of Canada’s Olympic team.
“It’s not fun, being the chef,” Podborski said. “I mean, there’s fun parts – but it’s a ton of work. And there’s stuff that happens in the background that you’ll never hear about, and with good reason. It’s a ton of responsibility.”
Last April, Podborski stood in a likely setting for one of Canada’s greatest-ever international athletes. On skis in the shade, he was on the Dave Murray Downhill on Whistler Mountain near the finish, right after a treacherous turn and atop a steep stretch before the final careen down one of the tougher ski race courses in the world. On a Sunday morning, the mountain quiet, Podborski leaned on his poles, which were nestled in his armpits, his legs parallel and turned 15 degrees at the hips – a racer’s lean. He was telling yarns.
One story harks back to Lake Placid in 1980, where Podborski’s bronze in the downhill represented half of Canada’s medal total and there were terrible transportation problems. In one instance, a traffic cop strongly suggested to a recalcitrant bus driver that he ferry a group of freezing spectators, who had been waiting forever, to their destination. The driver said it wasn’t his route. The cop, drawing his gun, encouraged the driver to make the run.
At the Athens Summer Games of 2004, when Podborski was a broadcaster for NBC, the power went out moments after his show concluded – viewers at home were not treated to a blank screen.
Sochi will likely see similar issues. Last winter, the weather in the mountains about 50 kilometres inland was spring-like, and events were either conducted in the driving rain or cancelled. Training on the luge course has been disrupted by power outages. The trick for Podborski and Canada is to skirt problems – or at least not be undermined by them.
The Canadian Olympic Committee has, for the first time, chartered an entire ship to carry 65,000 kilograms of goods and equipment to the Games. Steven Hills, the head of Canada Snowboard, told a House of Commons committee in November that this will be “the most complex” Olympics, including working with locals. “The Russians are fiercely competitive,” Hills told the committee. “They’re not always as helpful as they should be under the IOC rules.”
Podborski is ready for this halfway-around-the-world milieu. When he and the teammates of his youth – the Crazy Canucks – barnstormed Europe, the trips were largely improvised. At the end it comes down to the athlete, dealing with the inevitable stress. In 1980, Podborski called the pressure on him “outrageous” and told an interviewer: “I’m racing for myself, not to please the prime minister or my mother or my father or my girlfriend.”
In Sochi, Podborski said, “Everything is not going to be perfect. The thing is you still have to go out and win your medal. You can’t say” – Podborski adopts a mocking voice of a crying loser – “‘my breakfast was cold, or the bus was late.’” He returned to his usual timbre. “It doesn’t show in the results. It just says someone else won, right? So we prepare the athletes. ‘Look, guys, it’s going to be crazy.’ Our job is to make the guys the most prepared, and the least affected – because everyone’s going to be affected.”
Podborski had a remarkable athletic career. After growing up in Toronto, he cracked the World Cup circuit at 17. His bronze in downhill at the Lake Placid Games was a high, but the bigger accomplishment came in 1982, when he was the downhill World Cup champion – to this day the only non-European ever to win the title. He was named to the Order of Canada the same year.
The demarcation point of his more-recent life came in the late 1990s, when he was eating dinner with John Newcombe, the Australian tennis great from the 1960s and ’70s, at a Whistler restaurant. Podborski was carping about the failings of Alpine Canada. He was asked what he was doing about it, which amounted to nothing. So he started, working as an executive on the bid corporation to bring the Olympics to Vancouver and Whistler, which led to a job at Telus Corp., community relations focused on sports. At the same time, supported by Telus, Podborski did work for the Canadian Olympic Committee, and was assistant chef de mission in 2010, working in Whistler.
“His eagerness to learn” is one of Podborski’s strongest traits, said Darren Entwistle, CEO of Telus. “A lot of people are too arrogant to learn.”
Many of Canada’s medal favourites at Sochi weren’t alive when Podborski was in his prime. But Entwistle has watched him charm even schoolchildren in the community work Telus does. “His name still has huge cachet,” Entwistle said. “It demands engagement and respect. The kids don’t know who Steve Podborski was, but his impact with them is still tremendous.”
Appointed to his role in February, 2012, Podborski has put in significant time. In London last summer, he made an immediate impression on Roz Groenewoud, one of the favourites in the women’s ski halfpipe. Groenewoud at the time was still emotionally struggling with the death of her friend and mentor Sarah Burke. “He’s one of the people I felt that got me immediately,” Groenewoud said.
One of Podborski’s tools is humour. “I was too short to be serious,” said the 5-foot-9 Podborski, and then told a story of skiing with Entwistle and the CEO’s kids, trying to impress them with some “groovy” skiing. He ended up double-ejecting out of his bindings, a flipping fall. “Just call me Ken Read,” Podborski said to the family as he dusted himself off.
Read is something of a brother. He was a teammate in Crazy Canucks days and went on to help resurrect Alpine Canada in the 2000s; more recently, he was director of winter sports at Own The Podium to ready Canada for Sochi. Read joked that he and Podborski have spent more time together than they have with their own wives. Read also knows the job of chef de mission, having held the role for the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.
In Sochi, logistics will be a challenge, given the remoteness of the Games. The chef is there with the winners – and those who do not win. And the job can be “very serious business,” Read said – handling the likes of the Ben Johnson steroid scandal in 1988, or the 2002 judging controversy in figure skating featuring Jamie Salé and David Pelletier.
For Podborski, security could be his biggest challenge. In a recent interview, he noted that while the threats seem greater right now, security has been a major issue since the “enormous changes” at the post-Sept. 11 Games in Salt Lake City in 2002. Plans such as emergency evacuations are always in hand. Mobile phones are pre-programmed with key numbers. Essential information is on the back of accreditation badges – “if something goes sideways,” he said. “We are concerned, as everybody is, but not more than one should expect. Everything’s planned. Everything’s looked at. It would be extraordinary if it happened. It’s not extraordinary to plan.”
Given the range of roles in the job of chef, Read said Podborski has the combination of traits Canada needs in its leader. “He can command an audience,” Read said. “He can inspire them. He can entertain them. And he’s credible.”
Podborski is poised for the biggest Olympic role of his life, at least since he stood atop New York’s Whiteface Mountain on Feb. 14, 1980.
“People often wonder what the hell the job is, right, but it’s really to inspire, to lead, to talk on behalf of the team, to be the team leader,” Podborski said at Whistler. “Our team is so good. There’s so many great athletes, it’s not really about me at all. If I can add half a per cent, or a per cent, that’s a lot in high-performance sport.”