Big push from Canada is not panning out
VANCOUVER — Dean and Holly Pirozzini were prepared to wait in line for six hours at the Royal Canadian Mint pavilion on Saturday morning simply for the chance to touch an Olympic medal.
So, in their view, it was not particularly bothersome that the Canadian Olympic team was still anxiously waiting to grab all the gold, silver or bronze that it expected.
Canadian Olympic officials very publicly announced long ago that they expected to "own the podium" and lead the medal count for the first time at an Olympics. Midway through these Winter Games, however, Canada sat in fourth place. The United States had more than twice as many medals. "Just don’t take the hockey one," Dean Pirozzini said.
"Or the curling one," his wife added.
Canada’s aggressive mining for medals looks certain not to pan out. A goal of winning 35 medals, 11 more than it earned at the 2006 Turin Games, appears as far-fetched as finding an unfriendly Olympic volunteer. As the Games approached, a more realistic 30 became the number bandied about, because Germany’s 29 led the medal table in 2006. Still, a newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, projected 39.
Through Saturday, the United States had stormed across the border and grabbed 23 medals, including six gold. (American athletes have mockingly suggested that they are renting the podium for a month.) Germany had 14, Norway 11, South Korea nine and Canada eight.
Through its $110 million US Own the Podium program, Canada funneled resources to particular sports and athletes where it saw opportunity, and annoyed some foreign athletes by being stingy with access to venues for training. It spread word of its ambitions far and wide, a bold declaration that some felt was rather un-Canadian and unbecoming a proper host.
"We’re not that far behind where we thought we’d be," said Nathalie Lambert, a three-time medalist in short-track speedskating in the 1990s, and an official for the Canadian Olympic Committee. "We’re still in contention."
Officials believe that the final week of the Games, with medals to be awarded in events like hockey, curling and speedskating, could yield up to 12 more medals for the home team. The best-case finishes would still leave Canada behind its projections. And it is fair to wonder whether pressure has affected the athletes.
Mellisa Hollingsworth, a favourite for a gold medal in skeleton, cried when she finished fifth on Friday. "I feel like I let my whole country down," Hollingsworth said.
Before these Games, Canada had never won a gold medal on home soil despite holding two previous Olympics — the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, and the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.
So the country fixed its collective gaze to the moguls skier Jennifer Heil, the defending Olympic gold medalist and four-time World Cup champion. Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to watch her compete on the first full day of the Games. But hope was doused by the American Hannah Kearney. Heil’s otherwise strong silver-medal performance felt like a national letdown.
A night later, without Harper in the stands, the mogulist Alexandre Bilodeau became the answer to a new nationwide trivia question by winning gold. Three other Canadians have captured gold.
Yet the first week of the Olympics was largely a series of disappointing finishes, penciled in medals that had to be erased. The speedskater Kristina Groves finished six-100ths of a second from bronze in the 1,000 meters. The figure skater Patrick Chan, a medal favourite, finished fifth.
With 15 Canadians going for medals Saturday, they won none, the first day of the Games they had not earned a medal. They had three top-10 finishers in the men’s 30-kilometre pursuit cross-country race. In a five-man 1,000-meter final in short-track speedskating, the two Canadians in the race — the brothers Charles and Francois Hamelin — were passed on the last lap by the American Apolo Ohno for the bronze medal.
"We always said there should be a fourth medal," Dean Pirozzini said while waiting in line at the mint. "Aluminum. We’d clean up in that."
Canadians on the streets of Vancouver did not appear to have the disappointment gene in their DNA.
"I don’t think we expected to be tops over all," said Darren Drake of Calgary, bedecked in a Team Canada hockey jersey. "I think it’ll be a bigger disappointment if we don’t win the hockey gold medal."
But Canadian officials wanted much more. Across all of last season’s world championships, Canadians won 29 medals (six gold), more than any other country. The United States and Germany each won 27. That barometer gave rise to the belief that Canada could be the top winter sports country this time.
Or not. Nearly every host country sees a spike in the medal count from the previous Olympics. Canada, having made the boldest predictions, might fall short of that. There are no regrets from Canadian officials. "A national goal needed to be set in order to focus all the sports’ attention on some target," Roger Jackson, chief executive of Own the Podium, wrote in his blog earlier in the Games. "As Canada finished tied for fourth spot in total medal count (17 medals) at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, it was decided we should strive to be first. A bold goal to be sure, but worth trying."
Canadians seemed to rally around the movement. On the crowded streets of downtown Vancouver, most knew how many medals Canadian athletes had won, and where the number ranked among other countries. They shrugged away the low numbers with good humor. They wore full Canadian garb, including some of the 2.6 million pairs of red mittens with the maple-leafed palms that have been sold to benefit Canadian athletes. Celebrations for medals won reach almost to dawn each night along Granville Street and in Yaletown.
The Pirozzinis, ready to wait for half of Saturday to grab a medal at the Mint — if only for a moment — were among those who think that maybe medals should be counted differently.
"We should get four for the curling team," Holly Pirozzini said. "And how many are on the hockey team? We should get those, too."
Written by John Branch, New York Times