Breaking bad

Some may view it as a running joke while others may find it a quirky Olympic footnote.

COC confident Olympic struggles on home soil distant memory

Speedskater Christine Nesbitt, centre, will lead a strong Canadian field into Vancouver. ((Geir Olsen/AFP/Getty Images))

Some may view it as a running joke while others may find it a quirky Olympic footnote.

Regardless of the attitude, the Canadian Olympic Committee would like to see it come to a merciful end: this country being the only host not to win a gold medal - at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

This lingering piece of trivia continually haunts the COC like the infamous Dogs Playing Poker painting would sully New York's famed Guggenheim Museum.

Whether Canadians win the medal race in 2010 or fall short, one thing is clear: Olympic officials are convinced the struggles on home soil will soon be over. And they are even pointing at the fence in true Babe Ruth fashion.

"I can state unequivocally, and give you an absolute guarantee, that we're going to have a number of gold medals in Vancouver," said Chris Rudge, the COC's chief executive officer.

Led by the men's and women's hockey teams, there are plenty of Canadian hopefuls for gold this time around. Several others are also having outstanding years in various sports, from speedskating to figure skating.

Through the help of corporate and government funding, the organization is determined to reverse history.

When Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics six years ago, a program named Own The Podium formed shortly after in an effort to help make Canada the top medal nation.

Beginning in 2005, Canadian winter sports receive $120 million for five years, and, fortunately for the COC, the money and work has paid off.

Canada finished third in the medal count with 24 at the 2006 Torino Winter Games, including seven gold medals.

Aside from the annoyance of answering such a question, Rudge's boastful words appear justified.

While the goal of topping the medal count in Vancouver seemed ludicrous at first, Canadians have seen dramatic increases in podium results during international events since Turin, Italy.

This past weekend alone saw Canada claim a whopping 15 gold, seven silver and six bronze medals at various World Cup and world championship competitions. 

With officially marking the one-year countdown to the Winter Games — set for Feb. 12-28, 2010 — we offer some of the medal hopefuls, competitors on the cusp, and long shots looking to catch lightning in a bottle in order to help wash away the bad taste of the last two Olympics in Canada.

Medal Contenders

Men's hockey team

No group of athletes faces more pressure to take home the gold. Many Canadians would consider Vancouver a disappointment if the men fail to reach the top of the podium, regardless of how the rest the Canadian Olympians perform. After erasing 50 years of frustration by capturing the gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the Canadian team fell hard in Turin.

Canada first suffered its most embarrassing international loss to lightweight Switzerland — a 2-0 humiliation — in the preliminary round, before getting the boot from archrival Russia in the quarter-finals. Re-tooled with a younger team that will include Sidney Crosby, new team executive Steve Yzerman is charged with the responsibility of putting Canada back on top of the hockey world. 

Women's hockey team

There's not denying the Canadian women are two-time defending Olympics champions, but they haven't been their usual dominant self during the last year. Team Canada has dropped both the 2008 world championship and the Four Nations Cup event to the hated Americans.

"Those things have made us more focused, I really believe that," says head coach Melody Davidson. "Maybe I can get more attention from the players because some of the things they're doing aren't working and we need to make some adjustments."

Men's curling team

While the Olympic trials are still months away, there is a strong possibility the men's spot will go to either Ontario skip Glenn Howard or rival Kevin Martin of Alberta. The curlers have combined to win 11 of the 12 Grand Slam events and are without a doubt the finest two teams in the country.

Women's curling team

Unlike their counterparts, the women's field is wide open. A slight edge may go to Jennifer Jones, who won the 2008 world championship. However, Jones will be challenged by several other rinks, including 2007 world-title holder Kelly Scott of B.C. In addition, veteran skip Colleen Jones should not be taken lightly. The five-time Canadian champion is determined to make her final Olympic trials a triumphant one.

Jennifer Heil (Freestyle Skiing)

Freestyler Jennifer Heil, a four-time World Cup champion, remains Canadas best hope in womens moguls. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))
Heil began Canada's record Olympic medal haul by winning the country's first gold in Turin. Heil is a four-time World Cup champion who took a significant amount of time off to heal all of her injures, but remains Canada's best hope in women's moguls. She returned this past weekend to win gold at the World Cup competition at Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver — site of the Olympic venue for the freestyle events.

Christine Nesbitt (Speedskating)

Nesbitt has essentially taken the place of Cindy Klassen as Canada's best female speedskater. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Nesbitt only took up long track in 2003, but has blazed through a trail of World Cup medals. She leads the women's 1,000-metre World Cup standings and has won four gold medals this season, including the 500 m competition at the recently completed world all-round speedskating championship in Hamar, Norway.

Denny Morrison (Speedskating)

Few would argue that Morrison is the hottest speedskater in the world. Heading into the world all-around competition, Morrison had won three of his last four faces and remained second in the 1000 m World Cup standings. But the 23-year-old only enhanced his chances in Vancouver by winning the men's 500 m all-around event in Norway. Morrison was also part of Canada's pursuit team that skated to Olympic silver in 2006.

Pierre Lueders (Bobsleigh)

The 38-year-old Edmonton native has few peers in the sport. Lueders captured a gold medal in the two-man at the 1998 Nagano Games, and a silver eight years later in Turin. Along with a pair of world titles and a number of World Cup wins, Lueders remains a fiery competitor. Oh, and to bring a little more intrigue to his final Olympic Games, Lueders is unveiling a new four-man sled — named the Whistler Bomber.

Helen Upperton (Bobsleigh)

Upperton has quickly moved up the ranks to become one of the finest women's bobsledders in the world. Her inexperience showed in Turin as driving mistakes during the second and third heats cost her a medal (she missed the podium by only five-one hundredths of a second). However, Upperton has only gotten better and already has two victories on the World Cup circuit this year.

Patrick Chan (Figure Skating)

Chan removed any doubt that he is ready to emerge as Canada's next great male skater after winning the Four Continents event in Vancouver recently - a competition featuring many of the skaters who will be participating in the Olympics. He emerged from the shadow of 2008 world champion Jeffrey Buttle, defeating his rival at last year's Canadian championships. Chan continues to impress the skating world. The Toronto skater won back-to-back Grand Prix Events this year and is gaining more confidence with each international event.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Figure Skating)

CBC Sports analyst Tracy Wilson calls Virtue and Moir the most exciting ice dance team she's seen in years. The Canadian champions placed second at the Four Continents event, which should bode well for them at the upcoming world championship in March. An extremely innovative and crowd-pleasing duo, Virtue and Moir are primed to make a serious run in Vancouver.

Charles Hamelin (Short-track Speedskating)

This two-time individual world champion appears ready to take the next step. Hamelin earned a silver medal as part of the men's 5,000-m relay team at the 2006 Winter Games and finished 4th fourth in the 1,500 m competition.

On the cusp

Cindy Klassen (Speedskating)

Edmonton's Pierre Lueders, right, has few peers in the sport of bobsleigh. ((Arno Balzarini/Associated Press))
Klassen made the biggest impact in Turin, becoming the first Canadian athlete to ever win five medals in one Olympic Games. Klassen opted to skip the 2007 season to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and returned on a part-time basis following her sister's near-fatal accident. A bit of a wildcard due to her inactivity, Klassen should still be part of a very talented long-track team into the Winter Games.

Joannie Rochette (Figure Skating)

After struggling through the early part of her career, Rochette has come into her own. Rochette, a five-time national champion, has won two consecutive Grand Prix events this season with some impressive performances. Wilson thinks Rochette — a silver medallist at the Four Continents — will be a serious medal contender in Vancouver if the Quebec native can keep her consistency.

Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison (Figure Skating)

The Canadian pairs champion have had up and down moments in the last two years. Still, Dube and Davison earned the 2008 world bronze medallist, and just recently finish second at the Four Continents event.

John Kucera (Alpine Skiing)

Inactivity has turned 2006 Olympic champion Cindy Klassen into a wildcard. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))
There is no other amateur sport that can boost an athlete from a middle-of-the-road competitor to a medal threat virtually within a blink of an eye. Kucera is a perfect example of how one event can change everything. Regarded as a super-G specialist, the Calgary native became the first-ever Canadian male skier to win a world Alpine title, capturing the downhill event on Saturday.

Kucera had never won a downhill before his Val D'Isere triumph in France. His only other win came at the World Cup super-G in Lake Louise, Alta., three years ago. Kucera would become the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal since Edi Podivinksy in 1994, should he reach the podium in Vancouver.

Steve Omischl (Freestyle Skiing)

Omischl completed the greatest season of any aerial skier in history last year, winning six of nine World Cup events and eight total medals. The three-time World Cup aerials champion began this season slow, but recovered to win World Cup gold at Mont Gabriel, Que. Omischl continued his winning ways by taking World Cup gold at Cypress Mountain. The victory maintains Omischl's sizeable lead atop the World Cup standings. Yet the 2005 world champion will have to overcome a sub par Olympics in Turin, where his finished 20th. To be fair, Omischl was still recovering from a lingering foot injury.

Chandra Crawford (Cross-Country Skiing)

Of the seven gold medals Canada won in Turin, Crawford's victory in the women's Olympic sprint was the most surprising. In Vancouver, Crawford's best opportunity to claim a second Olympic medal should come in the skate-ski race with partner Sara Renner.

Men's and Women's Ski Cross

In 2006, the International Olympic Committee announced this event would be part of the Vancouver Winter Games. Canada's hopes may well rest with Aleisha Cline of Squamish, B.C., and Chris Del Bosco from Sudbury, Ont. Both won World Cup gold medals at Cypress Mountain in their respective events.

Long shots

Rest of the Alpine Team

Other than Kucera's stunning downhill win at the world championship, the team is not where the Alpine Canada had hoped at this point. Following a trio of heart-breaking fourth-place finishes in Turin, Canadian skiers had a best-ever 14 podium spots in 2006-07.

However, top-three results haven't come nearly as frequent, forcing Alpine Canada to scale down its lofty goals for Vancouver. After Kucera, Mont-Tremblant, Que., skier Erik Guay appears to have the best shot at a podium result. His best season occurred 2007, when he reached the podium five times and ranks sixth in the World Cup downhill standings this year.

On the women's side, Emily Brydon is eighth in downhill and ninth in combined, while Britt Janyk stands 11th in the super-G standings.

"It's just a matter of timing and putting down that run on race day," said Kucera. "Sure there aren't as many podiums and stuff this year but …  there have been fourth places and fifth places and really great split times coming down some tracks.

"I think we are in good shape now to bring home medals at the Olympics. It's just a matter of who is going to do it on race day."

Men's Cross-Country Team

Calgary native John Kucera became the first-ever Canadian male skier to win a world Alpine title. ((Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press))
Alex Harvey and George Grey opened a lot of eyes when they captured a bronze medal in the World Cup men's cross-country team sprint last month in Whistler, B.C, giving Canada its first-ever medal in the ski event. Through in Ivan Babikov and Devon Kershaw into the mix, and CBC Sports analyst Jack Sassville believes the Canadian men can make some noise in Vancouver.

"Ivan Babikov, Devon Kershaw, George Grey and Alex are all [top 10 calibre skiers]," said Sassville. "What this really means is Canada has an outside chance, I think, for a medal in the men's relay [at the Vancouver Olympics]. That's four really good skiers."

Jeff Batchelor (Snowboarding)

The Oakville, Ont., native was among this year's pleasant surprises for the COC. A national team member since 2006, Batchelor captured a silver medal during the half-pipe event at the snowboard world championship in Gangwon, South Korea.

With files from the Canadian Press