Road to the Olympic Games: With 1 year to go, Team Canada takes shape for Pyeongchang

Based on Canada's recent past, hopes for another great Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang are sky high, according to CBC Sports host Scott Russell.

Expectations ‘sky high’ for Canadians ahead of 2018 Winter Games

Clockwise from left: Mark McMorris, Ted-Jan Bloemen, Max Parrot, Ivanie Blondin, and Marianne St-Gelais have high expectations with the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics officially a year away. (The Associated Press/The Canadian Press/Getty Images)

Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes' journeys on and off the field of play. Here's what to look for on this weekend's show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.


One year to go and when it comes to this edition of the Olympic Winter Games, most of the talk is destined to be about people and performance as opposed to politics.

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South Korea will undertake the Winter Games for the first time, and admittedly, few of us know all that much about the host community of Pyeongchang. Still, we do know that, for the time being, there are few concerns about readiness or human rights or pollution, in what seems to be a relatively stable and prosperous country.

This small county in a mountainous region of snowy Asia is not to be confused with Pyongyang, the capital of mysterious North Korea. In fact, an urban myth suggests that Games organizers artificially inserted a capital "C" in the middle of PyeongChang so as not to deter potential visitors.

But that's beside the point, and because we hail from a nation which revels in sports played on ice and snow, we are thus free in Canada to ramp up expectations on our athletes in terms of medal production once the Games arrive.

Hopes sky high

And based on the recent past, hopes are bound to be sky high.

Canada won a record 14 gold medals and topped the medal table in that category at the Vancouver Games in 2010, and followed up with 25 medals, including a sweep of hockey and curling gold in Sochi four years later.

Newly minted Canadian chef de mission and former short track speed skater Isabelle Charest welcomed the lofty aspirations with her first words as leader of the team.

"Canadians expect good results because we are a winter nation," Charest said from Montreal after being introduced by her former teammate and the 2010 Canadian chef de mission, Nathalie Lambert.

"As an athlete I believe that pressure is always a positive. If there is pressure it means that people believe in your capacity to produce results."

Charest comes from one of the most productive sports in Canadian Olympic history. Along with long track speed skating, short track has delivered more podium finishes than any other discipline for Canadian Olympic athletes, winter or summer.  Charest herself won three medals from three Games and was once the fastest woman in the world in her sport.

"We're in a very good position based on our performance as a country this World Cup season," Charest suggested. "Now the priority is to bring cohesion to the team, develop the best environment for the athletes to perform and get the entire group moving in the same direction."

Indeed, Canada is third, only behind Germany and the United States, in terms of medals won in the various winter sports at the highest international levels this season. But the world championships in the various disciplines are only now beginning and some of them will be test events for the venues which will be used at the Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Canada in good shape

Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own the Podium, which has targeted certain sports as medal producers and funded their preparation to that end, agrees with Charest that Canada is in good shape to meet or exceed expectations when the Games roll around.

"But the next six to eight weeks are critically important in order to assess where our athletes stand," Merklinger said from Ottawa. 

"I can't stress in a pre-Olympic year how important the world championships are when all the best athletes in each sport show up.  This is what we base our performance assessments on."

Merklinger admits that certain sports are surprising her in terms of performance and actually ahead of where they were four years ago in advance of Sochi.  She points to short track speed skating as one. So far in North America, Europe and Asia, a veteran of two previous Olympics, Marianne St-Gelais, has been dominant and won races at every distance.

Long track speed skating is also exceeding its targets as Dutch transplant Ted-Jan Bloemen has been victorious in distance races while Ivanie Blondin is the world champion at the mass start, which will make its debut at the Games in South Korea.

One year out from Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Games

5 years ago
Duration 2:21
CBC Sports' Kelly VanderBeek reports from the ceremony South Korea held to mark a year until the start of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics

"A key strategy for us is to assess new events on the Olympic program and get a jump on the competition," Merklinger noted. "It's always worked for us in the past." 

She's was referring to snowboard big air, which Canadian men like Max Parrot and Mark McMorris have soared in. Canada is also the reigning world championship silver medallist in the new alpine skiing team event, not to mention very deep in curling, which will debut the mixed doubles discipline in Pyeongchang.

"One of the primary targets will be to produce more medals than we did in Sochi four years ago," Merklinger concluded. 

World Cup speed skating gold for Ted-Jan Bloemen

6 years ago
Duration 1:14
Canada's Ted-Jan Bloemen won the gold medal in the 5,000-metre race on Saturday at an ISU World Cup long track speedskating stop in Berlin.

And then she unreservedly delivered the mantra which has fuelled the Own the Podium philosophy since the organization was founded in order to improve Canadian performance at the home Games in Vancouver in 2010.

"I think Canadians still care about Canada winning medals," she said without hesitation. "Those athletes come back home with medals around their necks and they are well positioned to inspire the country and the next generation of podium performers. We've maintained that message consistently and now we've enhanced it."

With a year to go to Pyeongchang all the chatter for now is about medals and athletes. 

Have to admit it's nice for a change to be focussed completely on the sporting spectacle, which is yet to come.

And closer than you think.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House."

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