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Canada’s men’s quadruple sculls rowing team train in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 5, 2016.

MURAD SEZER/REUTERS

For decades, the foreboding sight of a Canadian eight-man rowing team gliding across the water at the Olympics was enough to strike fear into rival nations – or at least draw a few grudging nods of respect.

But when the Canadian rowing team took to Rio's Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon for a few training runs this week, it was as though they had forgotten something important back at customs. The women's eight, a contender for the podium, was there, but the Canadian men's heavyweight boat was nowhere to be found.

It was no surprise to anyone following Canadian rowing closely, since the team had long signalled it would go without its biggest men's boat, but it still felt a bit strange – like Canada had gone to a winter Olympics and forgotten to pack the hockey team.

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That's because the eight-man boat has been a medal machine for more than 30 years, taking gold in 1984, 1992 and 2008, and claiming silver in 2012. But in a move that has stirred up controversy in rowing circles, team directors made a conscious decision not to send an eight-man boat to Rio. In a move that mirrors strategies being deployed by other countries such as Croatia, Canada has decided to take top rowers that would otherwise comprise an eight-man boat and divide them up, concentrating their talents in smaller boats, for more shots at medals.

In the case of the men, that means Canada will be sending two men's boats into competition at these Olympics – a men's four and a men's quadruple sculls – that the team believes have a legitimate shot at making the podium. Pack those same athletes into an eight-man boat, and the returns may not be as great.

It has been an unpopular move among Canadian rowing purists, and it's a high-risk gamble for the people who run Rowing Canada. If it pays off, though, it will mean more medals and – going forward – more development money flowing into the program. If it falls flat, it means Canada has walked away from one of its best summer events while trying to chase the podium.

It is the first time since 1980, when Canada boycotted the Moscow Olympics, that the country has not sent an eight-man boat to the Summer Games. Needless to say, the stakes – if not the sentimentality – are high.

"We made a conscious decision to say, 'Let's try to get some other boats onto the podium besides the men's eight,'"said Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada's high-performance director. "We felt in the long run that would be best for us to try to get up to the next level of a rowing nation. The challenge with it of course is that it requires very, very good athletes, which we believe we have."

"But the consequences of that is you have to stay away from some of the other boats, which includes the men's eight. Because the pool of athletes is only so deep – and if you start to water it down then it becomes not very effective."

Canada isn't the only rowing country attempting such calculated manoeuvres.

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The Croatians broke up their top four-man sculls team in an effort to put two of its best rowers in a two-man boat, and a third into a one-man event. The two-man team is now dominant, winning races handily, and the country enters Rio with a shot at two medals, rather than one.

Still, given the storied history of Canada's eight-man team, Terry Paul, the men's quad coach, said it does feel decidedly different in Rio without the heavyweight boat. Paul has been part of past Olympic eight-man entries.

"Having no eight, it does seem a little funny. But it actually seems to be trending that way in the sport itself. Because there are fewer men's eights qualified at this Olympic games," Paul said.

"I think all the traditional thinkers in rowing think: 'Oh we can put a couple of really big strong guys in an eight and fill it in with a few guys and get away with it,'" he said. "You can't do that in any event now. No matter what event you're in, you've got to have really well prepared strong athletes, and everyone prepared at the same level."

Rowing is to the Summer Olympics what speed skating is to the Winter Games for Canada – a sport that's typically leaned upon to bring home multiple medals and bolster the country's ranking in the standings.

Pascal Lussier, who will compete in the men's quadruple sculls, knows the pressure to produce. At 24, he represents the new generation of Canadian rowing.

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"I've been part of that new renaissance [toward] small boats," Lussier said. Having arrived in the sport about four years ago, Lussier says he didn't experience the prowess of the past Canadian eight-man teams firsthand, but he's experienced it through stories from other rowers and by watching video. The job of the smaller boats is to honour that legacy, he figures.

"I think we're doing a good job. And I'm really excited to be out there and put up some good results, and show that rowing in Canada is doing really well," he said.

That leaves the women's eight carrying the torch for what was once Canada's flagship rowing event. It's an added bit of pressure that Lisa Roman, a member of the women's eight, feels heading in.

"We want to do well, we want to make everyone proud, and we've got some really good girls in this boat, so I think it's just a matter of putting it together on the right day and hopefully we can get something good out of it," Roman said.

The shift toward smaller boats on the men's side comes at a time when the program is undergoing a refresh, with veteran rowers such as Julien Bahain and Rob Gibson, both competing in the quadruple sculls, preparing for their last Olympics.

Cookson, the team director, said the program hopes to eventually bring the eight-man boat back to an Olympics, and that the plan is to reshape the program long-term, with a mandate to win for more medals.

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"We're very proud of the history of the eight, rightly so," Cookson said. "But it's a long-term strategy, it's not just based on 2016, it's based on going to 2020 in Tokyo and then 2024. It's hard to not be in some of the boats that we have historically been in, but we believe also that in the long run it's best for this program."

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