North reviving past Olympic success

Canada's north has the same number of athletes competing in the Winter Olympics as all of Atlantic Canada, a region with 16 times as many people.

Grant program for N.W.T. athletes may be behind bumper crop of Olympians

Brendan Green of Hay River, N.W.T., skis his way around the course at a race in Whistler, B.C., in 2009. Green is among four Northern athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (The Canadian Press)

Canada's territories have the same number of athletes competing in the Winter Olympics as all of Atlantic Canada, a region with 16 times as many people, and some say that's due to a grant program for high performance athletes.

The four athletes from the North competing at the Sochi Games represents a revival of Northern competition at the Olympics. Three of them — Jesse Cockney, Michael Gilday and Brendan Green — are from the N.W.T.

The Northwest Territories had a presence at the Games in the 1970s and early 1980s that was also disproportionately large for its population, but that waned. Then, a decade ago, the territory started a grant program for high performance athletes, aimed at recapturing some of that Olympic success.

"It takes about 10 years to grow an Olympic athlete," says Ian Legaree, the N.W.T. government's director of sport, recreation and youth. "We had (cyclist) Denise Ramsden last summer in London, and then we had four northerners [in Sochi]. Ten years ago we started the program. We'd like to feel it's had some impact."

A million dollars has been spent on training, travel and equipment for about two dozen N.W.T. athletes, including Brendan 
Green and Michael Gilday, who are competing in Sochi.

The program also helps up-and-coming athletes.

Snowboarder Molly Milligan was on the cusp of making the Canadian team this year.

"It's been massive," Milligan says. "It's a huge part of my budget that they help out with, it just means that I can travel more with my coach and be at the best mountains in the world with the best facilities in the world."

Former Sport North president Abe Theil says northern athletes would benefit from additional investment in things such as "regional training centres where the athletes can come in and get coaching, additional coaching, and learn what's involved with being a top level athlete."

Many hope the momentum of this year's Olympians keeps building, and that the latest crop is inspiring the next.

"I can totally relate now to the experience and the effort put in, the highs and the lows you go through," says Milligan. "I absolutely am so proud. I think it's amazing."