Two dozen schoolchildren sat at attention in a room in the community centre at Vancouver’s Olympic Village. Steve Podborski, Canada’s chef de mission for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, stood on the podium, coaching the children in a “Go Canada Go” chant.
“Three times,” he said, “getting louder each time.”
The children were well able to deliver, the first iteration of the chant bursting out in a high pitch and the third bellowing at a near-screaming squeal.
This was, on Friday morning, the setting for the official introduction of Canada’s promising snowboard team for the Winter Games next month in Russia. Canada is poised to win as many snowboard medals in a single Olympics – five – as the country has managed in total through the previous four Games in which snowboarding events were staged.
After a quintet of Canada’s snowboarders was introduced, high-fiving the children on the way in, the young fans delivered again with their voices, chanting a heady: “Go Canada Go.”
“We are going to Sochi on a mission,” said Maëlle Ricker, gold medalist in snowboard-cross at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and again a favourite to reach the podium in the mountains near Sochi.
At the first Olympics where snowboarding appeared – in 1998 in Nagano, Japan – the sport was considered an unruly outsider, an image bolstered by the temporary disqualification of Canada’s Ross Rebagliati for traces of marijuana in his system.
Rebagliati won gold in the giant slalom event, but his victory was not the beginning of extended success in snowboarding for Canada. Instead, it was a long-standing high-water mark. Canada was blanked at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and managed a single bronze in 2006 (snowboard-cross racer Dominique Maltais).
Meanwhile, the United States dominated the marquee event: the halfpipe.
The 2010 Vancouver Games marked a change for Canada, with three medals, Ricker’s gold, Mike Robertson’s silver in men’s snowboard-cross, and Jasey-Jay Anderson’s gold in parallel giant slalom. Canada has never won a halfpipe medal.
At Sochi, with the addition of slopestyle events to the Olympics roster, Canada has its best-ever prospects, and it’s happening as slopestyle – a course with a series of rails and jumps – eclipses halfpipe as the sport’s biggest Olympic event.
According to Infostrada, a Dutch sports consultancy, Canada is projected to win five medals in snowboarding, using an algorithm in part based on relatively recent international results. Maltais is predicted to win gold in snowboard-cross, with Ricker taking a silver.
The bigger gains are in slopestyle.
Mark McMorris, the phenom from Regina, is picked to win gold, after winning back-to-back golds at X Games the past two winters. Sebastien Toutant is slotted for silver.
In women’s slopestyle, Spencer O’Brien is projected to claim silver.
(The five medals forecast by Infostrada matches Canada Snowboard’s internal goal.)
On Friday, Podborski said Canada is poised for a “standout” year in snowboarding.
As for the “Go Canada Go” children, their youthful exuberance was part of an effort to more closely connect Canadian children with Olympians and turning formerly more bland team announcements into a bigger platform.
“We’re engaging kids,” Podborski said.
Canada has 24 positions in snowboarding at the Games and five were officially nominated to the Olympic team Friday, led by Ricker and including O’Brien, McMorris, Toutant and snowboard-cross racer Chris Robanske.
Five more athletes, including Maltais and Anderson, have qualified for the Olympics but could not be in Vancouver on Friday, and have not yet been officially nominated. The other 14 places will be filled closer to the Games based on recent results.
As the event ended, the slopestyle riders headed north to Whistler, where on Blackcomb Mountain a replica of the slopestyle course at Sochi has been sculpted in the terrain park. Riders will be able to train there for several weeks, before heading to Aspen, Colo., for X Games, and then a move to Salzburg, Austria, to settle prep for the Games ahead of arrival in Sochi.