It’s one those moments in Canada’s sporting history that few will ever forget.
The Calgary Games, in 1988, the first Winter Olympics in this country, and the hosts were shut out on the gold medal count, yet again.
There had been some serious hopefuls, too, with none better than figure skater Brian Orser, who narrowly lost out to American star Brian Boitano in the Battle of the Brians and had to settle for silver. Canada ultimately finished 13th in the medal standings that year – with two silver medals and three bronze – in one of the weaker performances by a host country.
Canada has had a sharp uphill rise from there, however, with a ninth place finish in Albertville followed by seventh in Lillehammer, and top five finishes in all of Nagano, Salt Lake City and Turin. Vancouver four years ago then set a new high, as Canada topped the standings entirely, becoming the first host nation to do so since Norway 58 years earlier.
There are a lot of different reasons that shift happened, with some of the credit rightly going to programs like Own The Podium that boosted funding to athletes and helped make Canada more competitive.
But the biggest shift in Canada’s favour the last 20 years has actually been to the Games themselves, which have evolved dramatically in a bid by the IOC for better TV ratings and higher revenues.
The Calgary Games were actually a pivotal moment on that front, too. That year, there were 46 events spread across 10 different disciplines, with the newest of those being the luge, which had joined the Olympic roster way back in 1964.
Amidst a familiar calendar built around the majority of medals going to alpine and cross country skiers (nearly 40 per cent) and speed skaters (22 per cent) were three demonstration sports that would in future years become permanent additions: curling, freestyle skiing and short-track speed skating.
In a sign of things to come, Canada was remarkably dominant in the three new categories, winning 14 medals (including three gold) in just 18 events.
Those didn’t count in the final standings that year, but they were successful enough that, four years later, freestyle and short track became regular Olympic events. Six years after that in Nagano, curling and snowboarding became the 13th and 14th disciplines, followed by skeleton joining as the final newcomer in 2002.
How important these five new entries have been to Canada’s medal hopes has been on display in Sochi so far in these Games, with eight of the 10 medals won in those sports.
Overall, since the Winter Olympics started this expansion process in 1992, Canada has won nearly 20 per cent of all the available medals (and more than 50 per cent of all its medals) in those five disciplines.
By comparison, Canadians have won just 5 per cent of the medals in the 10 older disciplines in that span, even if you include those in traditional strongholds like figure skating and hockey.
It’s not hard to see why. Nearly a century after appearing in the first Winter Olympics in 1924, Canada has still yet to win a medal in luge, Nordic combined and ski jumping, which are all dominated by European countries like Germany, Norway, Austria and Finland.
Canada also has won only 12 of the more than 700 medals ever given out in bobsleigh, biathlon and cross country and a paltry 10 of the roughly 400 in alpine events.
The addition of women’s hockey has added one guaranteed medal in a more established sport, and there have been some inroads elsewhere, including in long-track speed skating, which is tied with cross country as the most medal-heavy sport in Sochi.
Had the Games not changed beginning in Calgary, however, it’s safe to say Canada wouldn’t be riding nearly this high.
Own The Podium may get the credit, but this country’s rise in the medal count is tied right back to that push to modernize and better monetize the Olympics, something that started in 1988 with a trio of demonstration sports that were immensely popular with fans and quietly dominated by the home side.
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How new events have changed the Games
The number of events at the Winter Olympics has increased dramatically the last 30 years, and the creation of new sports disciplines has been a big factor in that growth. In 1984, there were just 39 gold medals given out; in Sochi that total will hit a record high of 98. One-third of those medals will be in sports that didn't exist in the Games prior to 1992: Curling, freestyle skiing, short track speed skating, skeleton and snowboarding.
Where Canada's success comes from
For years, the Winter Olympics were heavily based on sports Canada has rarely produced medals in such as cross-country skiing, ski jumping and related events like biathlon and nordic combined. Adding new sports has dramatically changed this country's fortunes at the Games.
Breaking down Canada's medal count
Since 1992, Canada has won 53 per cent of its medals in the newer Winter Olympic sports, despite the fact they have made up less than a quarter of the available medals. Canada is also one of the top four countries (in terms of medals won) in all five of the new sports and particularly dominant in curling, short track speed skating and freestyle skiing.