Canada's best gold medal chances at the Salt Lake Olympics next February will come on ice -- but not necessarily the ice of a hockey rink.
The Delta Center, which will hold short-track speed skating, and the oval in the Salt Lake suburb of Kearns are the venues where Canucks with flashing blades hope to match their eight-medal haul of Nagano in 1998.
Canadians brought home three gold, two silver and three bronze medals from the two speed-skating disciplines, more than half the total Nagano hardware. They included golds from Catriona Le May Doan in long-track 500 metres, Annie Perreault in short-track 500, and the men's 5,000-metre short-track relay.
The question is, will they have time enough to train at Salt Lake to adjust to the new facility and the higher altitude than their Calgary training base?
The Salt Lake oval is at the highest altitude of any of the world's artificial indoor tracks. Mac Norman, oval operations manager, predicts that by the time the bubbles are worked out of the ice surface for the world single-distance championships March 9-11, it will be the fastest surface in the world for record-busters. It has wide curves, allowing the racers to maintain their speeds as they turn.
Norman said the oval is the world's highest indoors at 4,675 feet (1,402 metres) above sea level, some 1,000 feet (300 metres) higher than Calgary, which currently has the reputation of being the fastest ice.
"But the thing that's an advantage for the people who train in Calgary is that Mark Messer, who makes the ice there, is the man who makes the surface in Salt Lake," said Canada's high performance coach, Sean Ireland.
The higher elevation means less air resistance for the skaters and less oxygen to create bubbles in the ice, and a denser, harder surface. Of course, it also means less oxygen for skaters such as sprinter Le May Doan or Cindy Klassen, who won three bronze medals at last weekend's world championships for all-rounders.
Ireland said the team will have high-altitude camps at Fortress Mountain in Alberta and Colorado Springs, plus use altitude tents to simulate the atmosphere in Salt Lake.
"We plan to spend a lot of time at higher altitudes like Colorado Springs [where the U.S. Olympic Committee has its training centre]and the long trackers and short trackers will do a lot of bicycling," said Jean Dupre, director general of Speed Skating Canada.
"I don't think we've peaked too soon with our performances this year. One thing that helps is having the Calgary facility. People want to come here and we've been able to host international events and give the money to our high-performance program to sustain the top and bring along the juniors. We've had junior world champions the past two years." Klassen, 21, is one of the new breed, a member of the national team for two years with a background in in-line roller racing and ice hockey. She was fourth overall against numerous Olympic medalists. She finished ahead of nine-time world champion and multiple Olympic medalist Gunda Niemann of Germany.
"Still, to repeat Nagano is a big, big challenge," Dupre said.
So say all the cash-strapped Canadian Winter Olympic sports, but Secretary of State for Amateur Sport Denis Coderre announced in the Commons yesterday that he had found another $1.2-million in the budget to put into final preparations for the Olympians.