Why Canadian athletes like Alexandre Bilodeau are winning Sochi gold for cool

As Canada’s success stories like the Dufour-Lapointe sisters and Alexandre Bilodeau steal much of the Olympic limelight, a well known Russian sport commentator tells CBC’s Nahlah Ayed that Canada is excelling in extreme sports because of their self-confidence.

Canadians have stolen the limelight, projecting confidence that's making headlines globally

Russia's best-known sports commentator, Dmitriy Guberniev, says Russians aren’t as self-confident as Canadian athletes. 'Through hockey, we always feel Canada is a country that should be respected.' (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

I had to stand on a box to be able to interview Dmitriy Guberniev. He's probably six foot five inches, a former rower who dominates Russian airwaves with a boisterous presence and a rumbling deep voice.

The country's best-known sports commentator rattles off international sport trivia as easily as he flashes a smile — though he does the latter much more sparingly. More importantly, he knows Russian sport and how Russians see it better than we could ever pretend to. On the screen, he projects the kind of confidence Canadians might associate with this country's sports teams.

So it’s surprising when he says Russians aren’t as self-confident as Canadians.

Get him talking about Canada — more to the point, about Canada and hockey — and the predictable mild jibing is peppered with expressions of reverence.

"Through hockey, we always feel Canada is a country that should be respected," he says, invoking names such as Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby — calling the latter the current best hockey player in the world.

Gold and silver medals in the moguls ski competition put sisters Chloe and Justine Dufour-Lapointe of Quebec in the Sochi spotlight. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Asked about Canada's overall momentum at Sochi, Guberniev says extreme sports are Canada's new badge of Olympic honour — that Canada is more than holding its own.

"You can't complain," he said in an interview at his Olympic Park studio shortly after recording his show, The Olympic Diary. "You are basically first going head to head with Norway."

Interview requests flood COC

Canada at the Olympics is suddenly a cool story, playing out on channels like Guberniev's Russia 1.

A slew of Canadians have stolen Sochi's limelight, projecting a new confidence that's making headlines around the world.

The Canadian Olympic Committee confirms that as the medals have piled up, so have the media calls — dozens from around the world requesting interviews with Canada's athletes — from Brazil, to Japan, to Russia, and of course in the U.S..

A quick scan of the shows and headlines suggests international media also appear smitten by Team Canada's spirit.

Wayne Coffey, a veteran journalist and author for the New York Daily News, said the change in how Canada's athletes are now viewed is evident over the 12 Olympics he's covered.

"America sort of had an athletic arrogance about it, you know, we're the United States, and they're those little Canadians north of the border," said Coffey, author of The Boys of Winter, a book on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

"But this Olympics I think it's making people rethink that … increasingly over the start of these games, Canada has been one of the real stories."

Feel-good stories like Alex Bilodeau play well

The pile of medals aside, it has certainly been hard for journalists here to resist the kind of feel-good stories that have played out alongside — whether that of skier Alex Bilodeau's gold medal run and that magical moment hugging his brother Frederic, who lives with cerebral palsy; or the Dufour-Lapointe sisters — the first three sisters in Olympic history to compete in the same event.

Both families have become darlings of U.S. morning programs like NBC's Today show. The Dufour-Lapointe sisters have proven as compelling on screen on CNN and Access Hollywood as they were on snow — and on the podium.

Their story has been told and retold in multiple languages.

Longtime Dutch sports journalist Kees Jongkind planned it so that he was filming Maxime Dufour-Lapointe, who didn't win a medal, as she watched her sisters Justine and Chloe win theirs. His own eyes mist up as he watches the dramatic piece he put together.

"It was very emotional because she was really disappointed about her own performance, and she had to be glad for her two sisters, so she was a little bit [torn] apart," said the journalist, who works for NOS, Holland's public broadcaster.

"The reaction from the viewers was the same. They felt it as well … the emotion of her was also in the living rooms in Holland."

Jongkind also interviewed Charles Hamelin, Canada's short track speed skater, who has also been in huge demand since his gold medal performance.

"Canada is a big sporting country. So we look up to them," added Jongkind.

Canadian athletes have basked in the attention, though it has also been exhausting.

"I think in two days, I have slept one hour," Bilodeau said after yet another interview, this one with the BBC.

U.S. media declare 'Canada is cool'

We are currently getting crushed by Canada…. The Canadians, with just 30 million people, are eating our lunch (probably a chicken noodle soup and a grilled Panini from Tim Hortons).- Yahoo Sports 

Headlines are almost fawning. When they speak of Canadians some of them speak of domination, of soaring and of Olympic spirit.

All apparently cause for U.S. medal envy, at least according to Yahoo Sports.

"We are currently getting crushed by Canada…. The Canadians, with just 30 million people, are eating our lunch (probably a chicken noodle soup and a grilled Panini from Tim Hortons). Then to quench their thirst they are going to that sweet beer fridge they brought over that only opens if you have a Canadian passport."

"Yeah, Canada is cool," says the article. "The U.S. is not, at least not yet."

U.S. medal envy. European awe. So how does Russia see the avalanche of Canadian success?

"I don't feel bad when Canadians are winning gold medals at Sochi," Guberniev says, with not a hint of bitterness. Russia is holding steady in fourth place. And the big prize is still ahead.

Hockey is just getting underway.

"Of course we are going to do better than we did at Vancouver [Olympics] It is really important for us to win over Canadians in hockey." With the briefest flash of a smile, he'd issued a friendly challenge.

"In Russia we believe that if you lose in hockey, you lose in the Olympics."

So Canada's — and Russia's — Olympic story is still unfolding, one headline at a time.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.