Field of Play: Speed skating is Canada's beast of burden | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: Speed skating is Canada's beast of burden

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2013 | 12:41 AM

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Christine Nesbitt believes Canada would 'dominate' if more young Canadians took up speed skating. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images) Christine Nesbitt believes Canada would 'dominate' if more young Canadians took up speed skating. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

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Hockey is the sport most Canadians associate with skating glory. But when it comes to delivering the goods year-in and year-out it is speed skating that is Canada's beast of burden. The numbers speak for themselves.
Hockey is the sport most Canadians associate with skating glory. 

They think of the players as gladiators on ice. Without question, the Stanley Cup is akin to the Holy Grail in this country.  

Figure skating has evolved into a national passion with a storied past and has been infused with wonderful characters. It's hard to ask for better examples than Elizabeth Manley, Elvis Stojko or Kurt Browning.   

But when it comes to delivering the goods year-in and year-out it is speed skating that is Canada's beast of burden.


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The numbers speak for themselves.  

Since the Olympic Winter Games began in Chamonix in 1924 Canadian athletes have won a grand total of 145 medals. That's not too shabby for a country like ours with a smallish population base. Long track speed skating has contributed 33 of those medals while short-track has chipped in 25 and it's only been on the program since 1992 in Albertville.

The bottom line is racing on ice has accounted for 58 medals. That is well over a third with gusts up to half of all the Canadian podium success at the Winter Games. It's a remarkable statistic which speaks to a Canadian affinity for a sport which has deep roots in Europe, and in particular, the Netherlands.

But it's more than just the numbers that tell the tale. This has become about a pursuit which Canada increasingly hangs its hat on as a self-styled winter sports nation.

Many of the great figures of our ice-bound history have come to prominence on the magnificent Olympic Speed Skating Oval in Calgary, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary season having been built for the 1988 Olympics.

"Welcome to the fastest ice in the world," proclaimed Marcel Lacroix, the associate director of the Oval as he kicked off the annual World Cup stop in Calgary.

He meant it.  

Outstanding competitors

Over the years world records have fallen at a great rate in Calgary and since it has become the national training centre for Speed Skating Canada, the alumni of outstanding competitors has grown exponentially. 

It was Gaetan Boucher who inspired a generation and his disciples grew up here, including people like Jeremy Wotherspoon, the most prolific skater in World Cup history. 

Double Olympic gold medallist Catriona Le May Doan is a national icon. Cindy Klassen won five medals at a single Olympics in 2006 and Clara Hughes became synonymous with Canadian sport largely because of her exploits on this ice.

"It's the most complete environment in which to train and compete," figured Mark Mathies. 

He's Speed Skating Canada's executive director of sport and as such oversees the performance of all athletes in both the short and long track disciplines.

"Gaetan Boucher inspired a generation of young people to take up this sport," Mathies said. "Other countries may have more depth of talent but Canada has the whole package when it comes to speed skating."

Indeed, the number of elite speed skaters in Canada is small by comparison to many of the European powerhouses. Still, the group has been incredibly productive.

"We have a great history of success and that comes from a relatively small number who have ever attempted speed skating," noted world and Olympic champion Christine Nesbitt. "Imagine what could happen if there were more young Canadians who chose speed skating. We'd dominate." 

With success and history comes great expectation. In all speed skating offers 20 medal events at the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Cross-country skiing is the next most lucrative sport with 12 opportunities.

"But it's like a steam engine that gets rolling," said four-time Olympic medallist Kristina Groves, who will be honoured in Calgary this weekend by inclusion to the "Wall of Fame", a gallery which encompasses the likes of Susan Auch, Le May Doan and Wotherspoon.

"The ability to train on this ice, the best ice in the world, with the best coaches and the best athletes in the World on an everyday basis gives us the capacity to keep on winning," Groves stressed.

The current Canadian athletes are fully aware that they are the living legacy of the 1988 Olympics and what was built here in Calgary. They also know they have been well supported by governments and corporate Canada. 

That means if Canada hopes to "Own the Podium" in Russia as it did at the home Olympics in Vancouver the beasts of burden must once again carry the load on this icy field of play.

What's on CBC Sports Weekend

This Saturday Sports Weekend begins at 1 pm ET with Championship Alpine Skiing on CBC. Women's and men's downhill races come from Cortina, Italy and Switzerland. The focus will be on the men's race at Wengen. It's one of the most demanding and revered courses on the circuit.

The Intact Insurance Speed Skating Series follows at 2 pm ET with the 500-metre races. Steve Armitage and Groves have the play-by-play call from the Oval.

Sunday it's more speed skating at 3 pm local time with Christine Nesbitt featured in the 1000m  race in Calgary.

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