Canada-US rivalry intensifies as Olympics approach
AP National Writer
NEW YORK – In the history of the Winter Games, Canada has won 119 medals. The United States has taken home 216.
Last time the Olympics were in Canada, no athlete from the host country ever heard “O Canada” from the top of the medal podium. When the games were in Salt Lake City eight years ago, “The Star-Spangled Banner” played 10 times at medal ceremonies.
Enough’s enough, the Canadians are saying.
A nation known for its modesty is taking a new approach headed into the Vancouver Games. The Canadians are proclaiming their plans to win the most medals – and, in doing so, aim to transform their lopsided rivalry with the United States.
“We don’t apologize for going to the Olympic Games to win,” said Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “For many years we seemed to have an attitude that just showing up and being nice persons was the Canadian thing to do.
“We had to change our attitude and be aggressive.”
Since Canada and the United States – with 10 times its neighbor’s population – are strong in many of the same winter sports, winning local bragging rights may be the key to taking home the most medals overall.
“There’s no doubt the U.S. and Canada are going to be rivals more so than in a long time,” said U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Bob Condron. “This may be the biggest story of the games. … It’s going to be fun.”
Four years ago, at the Turin Olympics, the U.S. finished second to Germany with 25 medals, while Canada was third with 24 – its best-ever showing. Now, after investing more than $110 million in its Own The Podium program supporting medal contenders, Canada believes it has a chance to finish on top when the competition ends Feb. 28
Rudge, in a telephone interview, said the COC earlier figured the Germans would be the biggest overall medal threat at Vancouver, but now sees the Americans in that role. He also recalled the recent complaints from some U.S. Olympians – firmly dismissed by Canada – that they weren’t being afforded fair access to training sessions at some of the Olympic venues.
“When you’ve got this unique rivalry between opponents. … it gives an extra edge,” Rudge said.
How realistic are Canada’s hopes to top the medal table? It’s no sure thing, but in the 2009 World Championships conducted for Winter Olympic sports, Canada edged out the U.S. and Germany to win the most medals with 29. The Canadian men and women firmly expect to win medals – quite possibly gold – in both hockey and curling, the speedskating team is given an outside chance for a medal haul in double figures, and the freestyle ski team is strong.
In any case, Canadian officials are pledging to end one embarrassing streak. As host of the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada failed to win a single gold medal.
“I think we will get that monkey off our back,” said John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee.
Own The Podium has doled out millions of dollars – from the federal government, corporate sponsors and elsewhere – to support athletes preparing for Vancouver and fund the Top Secret project that developed new technologies. Only a few teams, such as ski jumping and biathlon, got token amounts because of dim medal prospects.
“It’s money that has made a real difference,” said Roger Jackson, chair of Own The Podium. “Instead of one coach, you might now have three coaches and a traveling physiotherapist.”
Like Condron, Jackson anticipates an electrifying U.S.-Canada rivalry at the games, and hopes it will be good-spirited. That hasn’t always been the case – for example, there have been scattered outbreaks of national-anthem booing at National Hockey League games.
However, Jackson – a gold-medalist rower in the 1964 Olympics – says the Vancouver Games may establish new common ground for the U.S. and Canada.
“In the past, the Europeans controlled winter sports, but we now have the resources here in North America,” he said. “If you add it up, the two top countries will be Canada and U.S. – we’re all of a sudden seeing a change in where the power of winter sports is.”
“The opportunity for Canada and U.S. to collaborate, to have fun together and have a friendly rivalry is fantastic.”
For Canadian athletes, the ambitious medal forecast, the national media spotlight and the prospect of competing before home-country fans is likely to heighten pressure. Indeed, anything less than a gold medal for the men’s and women’s hockey teams will be a disappointment.
“These games have been stoked in a way it never has been before,” said Steve Brunt, a sports columnist with The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s leading newspapers. “How our the athletes react on home soil, with such high expectations, is the key.”
In the past, Brunt said, the typical Canadian attitude toward most international competition aside from hockey was “we hope not to embarrass ourselves” – an outlook that has been transformed through a systematic five-year plan to groom medal contenders for Vancouver.
“Our goal is to be dominant for a change and not be apologetic,” said Brunt. “Culturally that’s a big shift. There are people who are uneasy about us in the role of the swaggering favorite.”
He said some letters-to-the-editor writers worried that the Olympics might push Canadian fans too far toward jingoism.
“There’s a sense that we don’t want to be that – it would seen as American,” Brunt said. “‘USA, USA. We’re going to win everything.'”
For two neighbors who embrace many of the same sports, the competitive relationship between the U.S. and Canada has been an odd one.
Hockey aside, only a relative handful of Canadians have been stars in the continent’s other major pro sports – including Ferguson Jenkins, Larry Walker and Justin Morneau in baseball and a few place-kickers in football. A native of Canada, James Naismith, invented basketball (in Springfield, Mass.) yet the list of Canadian stars in the sport grows short after Steve Nash.
Well beyond those big-league sports, the U.S. has the edge – dominating recent head-to-head soccer competition, for example. Even given the population difference, Canada has produced an unimpressive share of world-class golfers and tennis players; its best Davis Cup result came in 1913, when it lost 0-3 to the U.S. in the final.
One key difference between the two countries is collegiate sports. Canadian universities don’t offer full athletic scholarships, while the NCAA does – prompting many of Canada’s top high school athletes to attend U.S. colleges.
Condron, the USOC spokesman, commended Canada for developing a strong team for Vancouver – saying it reminded him of the U.S. effort ahead of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics that produced a record 34 medals.
“We were both stuck around 13 medals before 2002, and now we’re competing for the top spots,” Condron said. “We’re ready. Canada is absolutely ready, and they’re going to be at home.
“If you hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ or ‘O Canada’ a lot, this is a good thing,” he said. “It’s great to have a rival. … I’d like nothing better than for us and our North American friends to be one and two in the world, and fight for number one.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.