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Canada narrowly missed out on another medal at the Olympics with a tough – and controversial – loss to Poland in the men's long-track speed skating team pursuit.
The Canadian team of Denny Morrison, Lucas Makowsky and Mathieu Giroux skated to a time of 3:44.27 on Saturday, but were unable to beat Poland, which won the bronze in a time of 3:41.94.
Canada, which was the defending gold-medal list from 2010, burst off the start line and led for much of the race. At one point, the Canadians built a two-second cushion and looked to be on the verge of pulling away. But as the race wore on, Poland began to close the gap, ultimately catching the Canadians before the last lap.
"I think our team is pretty disappointed," Morrison said afterward, noting he ran out of steam at the end of the race. "We came out wanting to defend our gold medal."
The team pursuit, in which three skaters from one country race around the track in tandem, competing against another nation in the adjacent lane, is the final speed skating event to be contested in Sochi.
The Dutch took the gold in an Olympic record time of 3:37.71 beating the South Korean team, which settled for silver in a time of 3:40.85.
However, there was controversy in Canada's loss to Poland. While Canada skated all-out against the heavily favoured Koreans in its semifinal on Friday, the Polish skaters appeared to be taking it easy in their semifinal against the dominant Dutch, finishing with a somewhat pedestrian time that was more than 11 seconds back of the Netherlands.
It appeared the Polish team was foregoing any attempt to make the gold-medal race in order to save itself for the bronze showdown.
"It's difficult to say," Morrison said. "That's just their strategy I guess, and they wanted a medal at the Olympics, whereas where we wanted to go for the gold medal. I don't think you could find a point, in any one of our races, any time during these Olympics... where we weren't going 100 per cent trying to win those races."
Makowsky said the Canadians never thought of holding back to rest themselves for the bronze race.
"We were never going to back down in the semifinal, as hard as we knew it was going to be," Makowsky said. "That's all that we can really stand by."
Makowsky added that Canada took the same all-out approach four years ago in Vancouver, and wasn't going to change.
After the race, Poland skater Konrad Niedzwiedzki said the team worked hard for the bronze.
"We wanted to win our medal," Niedzwiedzki said. "We believed, we worked hard for it, and we thought that we could win it, and that we deserved it."
Canadian coach Bart Schouten said Poland was the better team on Saturday, but said if they intentionally eased up in Friday's semi-final, it wasn't the way races should be skated.
"You're here, you show up, you give it all you can," Schouten said. "You don't go to the Games to give up and give away a race. You just don't do that."
He added the Canadian team wouldn't consider doing the same. "It's not the Canadian mentality," Schouten said.
Canadian men have been among the most successful in team pursuit since the sport was introduced at the 2006 Turin Olympics. The team won silver that year, and took gold four years ago in Vancouver.
The Netherlands has dominated the long-track in Sochi, taking all but three medals in the men's individual events. Morrison, who is from Fort St. John, B.C., won two, with silver in the 1,000-metre event, and bronze in the 1,500-metre race. And Poland's Zbigniew Brodka won gold in the 1,500. They were the only skaters to break the Dutch hold on the podium.
Morrison's two medals in Sochi give him four for his Olympic career, including the team pursuit gold four years ago, and the team silver in 2006. That ties him with legendary Canadian speed skater Gaetan Boucher, who also won four medals.
While Morrison said he was honoured to be tied with Boucher, he also said the team pursuit didn't exist when Boucher skated, believing that Boucher probably would have won a few more medals if it had been around. Boucher won gold in the 1,000 and 1,500, and bronze in the 500, at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. He also won silver in the 1,000 at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
"I can be really proud of that," Morrison said of being alongside Boucher. "The team pursuit never existed when he was around, so it's a little bit of a weird comparison. And maybe there will be other events in the future where people are medalling in those and they catch up to me and Gaetan."
In fact, the International Olympic Committee is considering adding new speed skating competitions to future Games, including a mass start event that would see several individual skaters on the track at once.
Saturday's team pursuit was also the first time the gold medal wasn't won by the host country after the Italian team won in Turin, and Canada took gold in 2010. It may also mark the final Olympics for Makowsky and Giroux who have hinted at retiring from speed skating.
The Canadian women's team placed fifth, beating the Americans on Saturday with a time of 3:02.03. That was 1.73 seconds ahead of the United States, which finished sixth.
The women's team of Ivanie Blondin, Kali Christ and Brittany Schussler were eliminated from medal contention a day earlier by the Russians. London, Ont.'s Christine Nesbitt, one of Canada's fastest women on the long-track in recent years, has been nursing injuries and did not skate.
Just as they did in the men's event, the Dutch women won the team pursuit, posting an Olympic record time of 2:58.05. Poland took silver with a time of 3:05.55. While Russia, skating in the bronze medal race against Japan, took the last spot on the podium in a time of 2:59.73
With files from Reuters