Winter season crucial for Canada's Olympic athletes
Canada captured 26 medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics
Barely a year out from the Sochi Olympics, this winter will be about testing and tinkering for Canada's top winter sports athletes.
But they'll have to do it with less money than they had four years ago at this time.
Canada captured 26 medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, including a Winter Games-record 14 gold.
A repeat performance in Sochi will be a tall order as much of the winter sport sponsorship money disappeared when the curtain went down on the hometown Games.
"We've had to be much more tactical because the available resources have definitely diminished. Definitely," said Ken Read, Own the Podium's director of winter sport.
Read and his OTP colleagues are keeping close tabs on their top medal hopes for the Sochi Games, in hopes of providing them with everything they can to pave the way for top performances in Russia.
"We're ensuring that every rock is unturned, everything possible is being provided for, thought through in terms of preparation and then transition into Sochi," said Read, one of the "Crazy Canucks" on Canada's ski team in the 1970s and '80s.
But providing the same level of preparation athletes enjoyed prior to 2010 will be a challenge due to dwindling sponsorship dollars.
"Everybody lost a lot of money after the  Games, including a lot of the NSOs [national sport organizations]," said Jon Kolb, OTP's director of sport science, medicine and innovation.
"Historically that's what happens when you host a Games, you have this incredible infusion of finances in the buildup to the Games and then afterwards, the well runs dry."
Kolb directed OTP's "Top Secret" division leading up to Vancouver, which included everything from wind tunnel testing of ski suits, to researching materials that would reduce friction on ice for skeleton and luge runners.
OTP had $2.2 million per year to spend on its 50-plus Top Secret projects ahead of the Vancouver Games, Kolb said, largely thanks to sponsorship from Bell Canada, which invested $2 million a year for the four years leading up to Vancouver.
After the 2010 Games, Own the Podium decided to transfer some Top Secret projects — now known as "Innovations for Gold" — to summer sports. But now, instead of having $2.2 spread annually over 18 winter sports, it had just $1 million to divvy up between 49 winter and summer sports.
"We have less money, less projects," Kolb said. "But we have a very high ratio of success, and the projects are having a direct impact. We're more targeted, we've had to be because we have less money."
COC jumps in
The Canadian Olympic Committee announced last month it was doubling its financial support for sport over the next four years to $100 million, with funds going to both summer and winter Olympic sports plus the 2015 Toronto Pan American Games.
The COC hasn't specified exactly how that money will be spent, but Read said the announcement was good news.
"[The COC funding] will help us focus on preparation for Sochi," Read said. "But on the other side, the national sport organizations have had some challenges in trying to find sponsorship. It's a juggling act, a balancing act."
This winter season, Kolb said, is critical in preparing for Sochi. Skiers will test out the aerodynamics of their suits, speedskaters will make adjustments to the hinge on their clap skates and cross-country skiers will continue to test different waxes in varied weather conditions.
"This season is a real test for their Games plan for 2014," Kolb said. "What everyone is trying to do is have their new equipment or their new application of research and development that we've done over the last three or four years in place so they're able to have it be part of their competition and training strategies next year.
"We have this year to tweak it, so when we go into next year, nothing changes."
Among the major events on this winter's schedule: the world figure skating championships, March 11-17 in London, Ont., the women's world hockey championships, April 2-9 in Ottawa, and the world bobsled and skeleton championships, Jan. 21-Feb. 3 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Own the Podium keeps tabs on its winter sport athletes through a three-tiered list. Level 1 is athletes such as bobsledder Kaillie Humphries, speedskater Christine Nesbitt, and ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who are ranked in the top five internationally and are considered "probable" Olympic medallists.
Level 2 athletes are generally in the top eight, periodically reaching the podium. Level 3 athletes could be on the Sochi team, but hold more promise for the 2018 Games.
There are also three levels of sports, with Category 1 sports, such as speedskating, curling, hockey and figure skating, having the most multiple-medal opportunities.
The most support is given to Level 1 and 2 athletes in Category 1 and 2 sports.
"That's in large part because we only have so much high performance funding," Read said.
One significant and favourable change coming out of the Vancouver Olympics, Read pointed out, was a shift in perception both within the sports community and the Canadian public.
"For the first time we have a clear synching of the way sport thinks about the Olympics, and the way the public things about the Olympics," Read said. "Sport wants to do as well as it possibly can, and I think the Canadian public would like to see our athletes do as well as they possibly can. And that's been the justification for the continued support, and that's where the government has read the mood correctly that we don't want to be walking away from the Games with this feeling that something's missing."
But Read cautioned that if Canada wants to continue to be a player on the global sport stage, "we have to continue to be investing robustly. The further we move away from 2010 without a step-up in investment, the more we'll fall back on the old method."