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Former World Cup and Olympic downhill ski racer Steve Podborski in Whistler April 14, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Former World Cup and Olympic downhill ski racer Steve Podborski in Whistler April 14, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Podborski is the face and personality of Team Canada Add to ...

Sochi will likely see similar issues. Last winter, the weather in the mountains about 50 kilometres inland was spring-like, and events were either conducted in the driving rain or cancelled. Training on the luge course has been disrupted by power outages. The trick for Podborski and Canada is to skirt problems – or at least not be undermined by them.

The Canadian Olympic Committee has, for the first time, chartered an entire ship to carry 65,000 kilograms of goods and equipment to the Games. Steven Hills, the head of Canada Snowboard, told a House of Commons committee in November that this will be “the most complex” Olympics, including working with locals. “The Russians are fiercely competitive,” Hills told the committee. “They’re not always as helpful as they should be under the IOC rules.”

Podborski is ready for this halfway-around-the-world milieu. When he and the teammates of his youth – the Crazy Canucks – barnstormed Europe, the trips were largely improvised. At the end it comes down to the athlete, dealing with the inevitable stress. In 1980, Podborski called the pressure on him “outrageous” and told an interviewer: “I’m racing for myself, not to please the prime minister or my mother or my father or my girlfriend.”

In Sochi, Podborski said, “Everything is not going to be perfect. The thing is you still have to go out and win your medal. You can’t say” – Podborski adopts a mocking voice of a crying loser – “‘my breakfast was cold, or the bus was late.’” He returned to his usual timbre. “It doesn’t show in the results. It just says someone else won, right? So we prepare the athletes. ‘Look, guys, it’s going to be crazy.’ Our job is to make the guys the most prepared, and the least affected – because everyone’s going to be affected.”

Podborski had a remarkable athletic career. After growing up in Toronto, he cracked the World Cup circuit at 17. His bronze in downhill at the Lake Placid Games was a high, but the bigger accomplishment came in 1982, when he was the downhill World Cup champion – to this day the only non-European ever to win the title. He was named to the Order of Canada the same year.

The demarcation point of his more-recent life came in the late 1990s, when he was eating dinner with John Newcombe, the Australian tennis great from the 1960s and ’70s, at a Whistler restaurant. Podborski was carping about the failings of Alpine Canada. He was asked what he was doing about it, which amounted to nothing. So he started, working as an executive on the bid corporation to bring the Olympics to Vancouver and Whistler, which led to a job at Telus Corp., community relations focused on sports. At the same time, supported by Telus, Podborski did work for the Canadian Olympic Committee, and was assistant chef de mission in 2010, working in Whistler.

“His eagerness to learn” is one of Podborski’s strongest traits, said Darren Entwistle, CEO of Telus. “A lot of people are too arrogant to learn.”

Many of Canada’s medal favourites at Sochi weren’t alive when Podborski was in his prime. But Entwistle has watched him charm even schoolchildren in the community work Telus does. “His name still has huge cachet,” Entwistle said. “It demands engagement and respect. The kids don’t know who Steve Podborski was, but his impact with them is still tremendous.”

Appointed to his role in February, 2012, Podborski has put in significant time. In London last summer, he made an immediate impression on Roz Groenewoud, one of the favourites in the women’s ski halfpipe. Groenewoud at the time was still emotionally struggling with the death of her friend and mentor Sarah Burke. “He’s one of the people I felt that got me immediately,” Groenewoud said.

One of Podborski’s tools is humour. “I was too short to be serious,” said the 5-foot-9 Podborski, and then told a story of skiing with Entwistle and the CEO’s kids, trying to impress them with some “groovy” skiing. He ended up double-ejecting out of his bindings, a flipping fall. “Just call me Ken Read,” Podborski said to the family as he dusted himself off.

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