Did Canada meet expectations in Sochi?


Heather Moyse and Kaillie Humphries fly the flag at Sunday's Closing Ceremony from Sochi, putting the cap on what was a very successful, though not perfect, Olympic Games for Canada. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CANADIAN OLYMPIC COMMITTEE
  • Photo courtesy of Canadian Olympic Committee
  • Heather Moyse and Kaillie Humphries fly the flag at Sunday's Closing Ceremony from Sochi, putting the cap on what was a very successful, though not perfect, Olympic Games for Canada.

The Canadian Olympic Committee’s goal at the Sochi Winter Games was clear — win the overall medal count.

After topping the medal table with a record 14 gold medals at home during the 2010 Olympics, and capturing 26 in total, the Canadian team went into these Games hoping to build off of that momentum.

With many of the new events on the program for 2014 being ones that Canada entered with great podium potential, surpassing the totals from four years ago in Vancouver didn’t seem like an impossible goal. But with 10 gold and 25 medals in all, it ended up being one that the Canadian team ultimately fell short of.

Russia was first in gold medals (13) and total podium finishes (33). Canada’s 10 golds were third behind Norway (11), while the 25 total medals ranked the Maple Leaf-wearing team fourth after the United States (28) and the Norwegians (26).

That being said, it seems wrong to call Sochi a disappointment or a failure in any terms. Perhaps that’s because it would be somewhat dismissive of the 16 days of incredible Canadian performances that we all witnessed.

Consider the successes: Alex Bilodeau and the bobsleigh duo of Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse defended their gold medals from 2010, something Canada had done just once before if you exclude team competitions. You could even call it three successful defences of gold medals if you consider Marielle Thompson’s women’s ski cross gold as one, with Ashleigh McIvor topping the podium for Canada in 2010.

Bilodeau and Thompson were each part of three gold-silver finishes for Canada, with the Dufour-Lapointe sisters providing the other in women’s moguls. Not far behind was the gold-bronze performance turned in by Dara Howell and Kim Lamarre in women’s slopestyle. Freestyle skiers, many of them getting their first Olympic exposure, made a huge impression on Canadian audiences, collecting seven medals, or nine if you include ski cross as a freestyle discipline as the Olympics (and International Ski Federation) do. Canada had already won the freestyle medal table by the time women’s ski cross racing wrapped up the schedule at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

The Canadian hockey teams reclaimed Olympic gold, which is always the goal, but the way in which the medals arrived — the women’s in a thrilling comeback over Canada’s closest rivals; the men’s through an outright suffocation of every other team in the tournament — were as satisfying as it gets for fans back home.

And of course, Jan Hudec provided one of the most significant bronze medals in memory when he ended Canada’s 20-year Olympic alpine ski medal drought in the men’s super-G.

In many ways, it’s tough to be at all crestfallen by the Canadian team’s overall performance in Sochi because the triumphs outshone the disappointments. And yes, there were disappointments.

Charles Hamelin had what seemed like a nightmare of a time in Russia, as the short-track speed skater came to the Games as a favourite for four medals, but left with just the single gold from the men’s 1,500 metres.

Mark McMorris captured an inspiring bronze medal on Day 1, overcoming a broken rib to land on the men’s snowboard slopestyle podium. But considering all of the men’s and women’s medal threats Canada had in that event — Maxence Parrot, Sebastien Toutant and Spencer O’Brien among them — one third-place finish was probably less than the COC was counting on.

The Canadian luge team looked poised to earn the country’s first-ever Olympic medal but ended up with fourth-place finishes in three races, plus one more fifth-place finish. The flipside was that Canada earned new record finishes in women’s and doubles competition, and was just one-tenth off the podium in the new (and possibly rigged) team relay. Sticking with sliding, the Canadian men’s bobsleigh team loaded up Justin Kripps’s Canada 3 sled with the best push squad it could assemble for four-man competition, but the team crashed out early.

Maëlle Ricker’s quarter-final exit when trying to defend her snowboard cross gold medal from Vancouver was tough to view as a disappointment when considering that she saw her wrist bone break through the skin just weeks before Sochi, and because teammate Dominique Maltais came through for a silver, meaning Canada has captured a women’s snowboard cross medal at every Olympic Games where the discipline has been contested.

And a frustrating day for the men’s ski cross team was quickly tempered by the one-two finish Thompson and Kelsey Serwa produced the following day.

Each time there was a heartbreaking finish by a Canadian athlete or team in Sochi, it seemed to be countered by a performance or moment that was equally uplifting. And the COC brass are certainly not viewing these Olympics as a disappointment, even if their original goal wasn’t met.

“I’m super proud,” chef de mission Steve Podborski told media on Sunday. “We are in striking distance, a handful of medals from being No. 1 on the planet. It’s unprecedented.”

Russia won the medal table on both counts, but had the advantage of a home Olympics and were coming off a 2010 Games that were viewed as a terrible disappointment. The hosts didn’t get the hockey gold they so coveted, but did earn more than double the 15 medals it brought back from Vancouver, including 10 more golds. Norway noticed small increases in victories and medals compared to 2010, and the Netherlands turned its long-track speed skating success into a huge jump up the medal standings, reaching the podium 24 times, compared to just eight top-three finishes in 2010.

What about the United States? Like the Canadians, the U.S. had a good showing in Sochi but saw medal totals dip. Even with a podium sweep in a new event (men’s ski slopestyle), the country’s first luge medal and a strong showing from the alpine ski team sans Lindsey Vonn, the Americans took a bigger step back at these Games than Canada. They matched their nine gold medals from Vancouver, but finished nine medals short of the 37 they collected in 2010.

After finishing second to Canada in 2010 with 10 gold medals, the German team struggled somewhat in Sochi. Germany captured 11 fewer medals from these Olympics — 19, compared to 30 in 2010 — and just four gold medals from disciplines other than luge.

Had Canada experienced a drop-off like the Americans or Germans did in the medal count, there might be greater cause for concern. But Canadian athletes have now earned at least 24 medals at each of the last three Winter Olympics, a consistency that shows Own The Podium is a strategy that delivers results.

So while there were disappointing moments for some Canadian athletes and one fewer medal to celebrate, these Olympics still feel like a success for Canada, and Sochi’s Games are likely to be ones that Canadian fans will forever look back on with fond memories.

Now, it’s 1,444 days and counting until Pyeongchang.