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OlympicsField of Play: 1 year out from Sochi, Canada is confident

Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 | 02:37 PM

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Women's bobsleigh pilot Kaillie Humphries, right, and brakewoman Chelsea Valois form one of Canada's top contenders for a gold medal in Sochi. (Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images) Women's bobsleigh pilot Kaillie Humphries, right, and brakewoman Chelsea Valois form one of Canada's top contenders for a gold medal in Sochi. (Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

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With exactly one year to go until the opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympics, most of the buzz has nothing to do with the athletes who will be the stars of the show. But they're out there toiling and, in the case of many Canadians, thriving.
SOCHI, RUSSIA -- It's an interesting time to be in Sochi.

With exactly one year to go until the opening ceremony for the XXII Olympic Winter Games, most of the buzz has nothing to do with the athletes who will unquestionably be the headliners, the stars of the show in 365 days' time.

Instead, officials and politicians strut regally while roadways to venues are often shut down so the "head honcho" himself, Russian president Vladimir Putin, can pass without danger of obstruction. Myriad news types from around the world have descended on this Black Sea port to discuss infrastructure, budgets and climactic concerns. People wear hard hats while posing for photo ops in front of dump trucks and construction workers.

Later they dine on local delicacies and drink fine wine.

Somewhere, almost unnoticed, the athletes are here as well. But they're far too busy to attend the lavish one-year-out celebrations at the magnificent Bolshoy Ice Dome.

It was impressive to be sure. The State Symphony Orchestra serenaded the packed house, and a well choreographed ice ballet featuring 2002 Olympic champion Aleksey Yagudin and silver medallist Irina Slutskaya commanded centre stage at the Ice Dome.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge stated the obvious in his remarks to commemorate the one-year-out anniversary. "The athletes are the heart and soul of the entire Olympic movement," Dr. Rogge declared.

But lost on the athletes are the speeches, protocol and fireworks which festoon these kinds of occasions. They're preoccupied with training and winning championships in anticipation of the Olympics yet to come.

The Canadian chef de mission, Steve Podborski, a legendary alpine skier and Olympic medallist himself, got it right as he considered the pomp and ceremony that surrounded him in Sochi.

"It can't be better for our athletes and that's all I really care about," Podborski shrugged. "If you're talking athletes, if you're talking sports and if you're talking Games, it's stunning. They're going to have everything they need to succeed."


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Russian-born Gaiazova a skiing contender

And if you take the time to actually talk to Canadian athletes about their impressions of Sochi, you'll find they're confident of success in a year's time. They like it here. They love the arenas, the tracks and the ice and snow upon which their Olympic ambitions will be realized or not.

"The building is great and the ice is good," said Charles Hamelin, who won two gold medals at the short track speed skating test event held in the Iceberg Palace.

Amidst all the hype about readiness there were almost no spectators in the seats, but Hamelin didn't care.

"Our times are pretty much the same as Vancouver," beamed the reigning Olympic champion. "So it feels good to be here and I hope to be here again in one year's time."

Up in the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana, the cross-country skiers ground it out in a World Cup test event at the Laura Nordic facility, where Canadian women came away with a bronze medal in the team sprint.

No time to wait around and celebrate.  

Immediately following the races, Dasha Gaiazova and Perianne Jones vamoosed with the rest of the team. They were bound for a training camp before another World Cup in Davos, Switzerland, and ultimately onto the world championships at Val di Fiemme in the Italian Dolomites.

"I'm a little bit under the radar but I'm really excited to be here," Gaiazova said. She and her family immigrated to Canada from Moscow when she was 15. Now she's becoming an Olympic contender for the Sochi 2014 Games by wearing Canadian colours.

"It's really cool to see people excited for me when they figure out I was born in Russia," Gaiazova said.

Cross-country skiing is a sport which provides a dozen medal opportunities for Canadian athletes. Women like Chandra Crawford, Beckie Scott and Sara Renner have delivered in the past, but in Sochi a strong group of men including world team sprint champions Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey as well as breakthrough youngster Len Valjas are confident they can add to the total.

"I'm super-pumped but they are very hard courses," Valjas said. "But now we know what to train for next year."

Humphries dominating in bobsleigh

While the dignitaries assembled to be entertained at the Bolshoy, Canada's most successful winter athlete at the moment, Kaillie Humphries, was hard at work at the Sanki Sliding Centre 40 kilometres away.

Humphries had just claimed her second consecutive women's world bobsleigh championship in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as the pilot of Canada One. She reigns as the Olympic gold medallist and has put together an incredible 12 consecutive podium finishes in international competition.

She's here in Sochi, not to look too far ahead or celebrate prematurely, but rather to learn about the Olympic track and, along with her brakewoman Chelsea Valois, to try to win the test event next week which will complete her remarkable season.

"My coaches and everyone who supports me has a plan. This has been seven years in the making," Humphries reckoned.

"I definitely think there's a sense of optimism. All the Canadian athletes are still [buzzing] from Vancouver 2010 and we're more excited than ever. We're going to prove that we can do it not only on home soil but in a foreign land here in Russia."

Indeed, there's a lot to live up to.  

Three years ago at the home Games in Vancouver/Whistler, Canadian athletes won an unprecedented 14 gold medals to top the standings. There were 26 podium finishes in all. Only the United States and Germany were more prolific in that regard, with the 37 and 30 medals, respectively.

Still, Canada's success at home has created a legacy of great expectations for the Games which will soon unfold in a faraway place on the Russian coast of the Black Sea. With all the talent expected to return to the Canadian Olympic team's lineup and increased funding from Own the Podium as well as corporate Canada, there will be no excuses.

"By definition I have to be optimistic because I'm the chef de mission, but my nature is to be competitive," said Podborski.

"If you look back to the years since Vancouver, where we did so well, our athletes have continued to shine and there's been fantastically hard work by them. They know they have a huge challenge ahead of them but I think they are going to do well.

"You look at Kaillie Humphries, Alex Harvey and [snowboarder] Spencer O'Brien, one of our young guns, and all of that looks good for us in Sochi. I'm sure all of our athletes will be inspired."

As the Olympic fanfare mounts in this evolving place, there is lots of glitz and glitter and plenty more to come. The organizers, under the watchful eye of Putin, will continue to extol the virtues of Sochi as "The City of the Future."

But the real Olympians, the athletes themselves, can't afford to take much notice.  What ultimately matters to them is what happens on the field of play in a year's time.

The Canadians we've spoken to are confident they're firmly on target for another stellar Olympic performance in Russia in 2014.

Scott Russell is the host of CBC's Sports Weekend. Follow him on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay.

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