Road to the Olympic Games: Speed skating is as Canadian as you can get

Speed skating on the long track, or oval as it has come to be known, is the most productive sport in Canadian Olympic history, writes CBC Sports host Scott Russell.

The sport we sometimes take for granted has produced so many champions

Canadian speed skaters Vincent De Haitre, left, and Ivanie Blondin, right, have emerged as medal contenders for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. (The Associated Press)

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

"Most young Canadians are born with skates on their feet," former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson once famously declared, "…rather than with silver spoons in their mouths." 

He was probably talking mostly about ice hockey, of which he was both an ardent admirer and accomplished player. But there is speculation Pearson had a more universal notion in mind which included the artistry of figure skating and the raw, race against the clock, embodied in speed skating.

Speed skating on the long track, or oval as it has come to be known, is the most productive sport in Canadian Olympic history. At every edition of the Winter Games, which began in 1924 in Chamonix, France, Canadians have been represented in speed skating, not even the dominant Dutch can claim that.

There have been 35 Canadian speed skating medals won in that span, eight of them gold, and athletes from this country have not been shut out from the Olympic speed skating podium since the 1992 Games in Albertville, France.

That's a successful run of a quarter of a century and counting.

For Team Canada, long track speed skating is the beast of burden that, like clockwork, delivers the goods when the Olympics roll around.

A case can be made that a significant troop of iconic, even legendary, figures in Canadian Olympic folklore has come from the sport of long track speed skating. In Sochi, it was the unselfishness of Gilmore Junio that led to the triumph of his teammate Denny Morrison. In Torino 2006, Cindy Klassen set a record by winning five medals at a single edition of the Games.  At the Salt Lake City Games of 2002, Catriona Le May Doan became the first Canadian to repeat an individual gold medal in the same event in Olympic history.

The great Gaetan Boucher

Before that on the ovals of Lake Placid and Sarajevo at the outset of the 1980's, when they skated on outdoor ice, Gaetan Boucher gave rise to a generation of disciples by winning a total of four medals while competing against the likes of the unstoppable Eric Heiden of the United States.

Boucher's legacy was cemented at the first home winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988. He competed there and failed to win a medal, as did all Canadian speed skaters, but he attracted legions of youthful and ambitious admirers and the facility itself rocketed to international prominence.

The indoor Olympic Oval, built high above sea level with dense, fast, ice, complete with state-of-the-art climate control, and presided over by the finest technicians on the planet, has been billed at various times as either "the fastest ice on earth," or "the fastest ice in the world." 

Regardless of semantics, the oval in Calgary still claims several world records, including Klassen's decade-long mark at 3,000 metres. In fact, only the indoor oval at Utah, which was built for the 2002 Olympics, can compete with Calgary when it comes to record setting conditions.

The operations manager or head ice technician in Calgary is Mark Messer, and because of his stellar reputation for creating the finest surfaces for speed skating he's currently overseeing the preparation of the oval in Pyeongchang for the next Olympics in 2018 - the same venue which just finished hosting the single distances world championships where Canadian skaters Vincent De Haitre, Ivanie Blondin and Olivier Jean all won medals and served notice they'll be factors at the Games in Korea next year.

Suffice it to say the tradition continues.

Test of time

And at the world sprint speed skating championships this weekend the ice will once again be put to the test of time over the combined distances of 500 and 1,000 metres with the end result being the fastest man and woman on blades being crowned in Calgary.

Canada's got great history at this summit of speed and the gigantic images of former champions like Le May Doan and Jeremy Wotherspoon, who won a record 67 World Cup races in the sprint distances as well as four world titles to start the new millennium, are draped lovingly on the oval walls for all to see.

And then there is the magnificent bronze sculpture, "Brothers of the Wind," fashioned by Canadian artist R. Tait McKenzie which is displayed prominently in the building as the skaters make their way to the field of play. Completed in 1925, it was purchased decades later especially for the Olympic Oval as not only an inspiration but also as an incentive.

McKenzie, who was an artist, athlete, and an unabashed devotee of both the Winter and Summer Games, showed his work at various Olympic cultural exhibitions in the early days. In what amounts to a Canadian monument to sport, he depicts eight speed skaters in majestic competition. Over time in what has become a long held ritual in Calgary, rings which bear the same image as "Brothers of the Wind," are ceremoniously awarded to skaters who manage to set new world records at this oval. They are meant to be a gift from the ice makers offered in appreciation of the athlete's momentous achievements on the track which has been so painstakingly crafted.

Perhaps the late Lester Pearson had it right when he referred to this special, almost instinctual relationship that we Canadians have with skating.

Doubtless we may not literally have been born with boots and blades on our feet, but many of us grew up comfortable in carving out our own path on ice.

And while hockey and figure skating receive most of the glory, it is the sport we have sometimes taken for granted that has produced so many champions over the course of our history.

By any estimation speed skating is about as Canadian as you can possibly get.


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