Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Team Canada no longer satisfied with putting in a 'pretty good' performance at Winter Games

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SOCHI, Russia -- Jennifer Jones found herself in the uncomfortable position of watching someone write a cheque on her account without knowing if she'd have the funds, or in this case precious metals, to cover the balance.

There was Jones, foisted upon a contingent of mostly Canadian media, the only athlete to bear the brunt of the cranked-up pressure at the Canadian Olympic Committee's kickoff press conference.

It was early Thursday morning here, down to hours before the opening ceremony of these Winter Olympics, and Jones was sitting alongside COC president Marcel Aubut and Team Canada chef de mission Steve Podborski.

While the bureaucrats were busy predicting medal wins and demanding Canada be at the top of the standings when these Games end, Jones faced questions about the realities of actually competing and delivering a winning performance.

Canada, it seems, has grown up where Olympic expectations are concerned and now the focus is to be great rather than just to participate.

Not only have expectations been raised but moral standards have mostly been brushed aside as distractions that can only get in the way of a winning goal. Argue amongst yourselves about the right or wrong of this approach but understand it's necessary.

The notion that one can be fair and good and still win is quaint but not often true at this level of sport. Further, most fans don't care if the home-run hitter is juiced so long as the ball is sailing over the fence.

While Aubut and Podborski certainly don't condone cheating of any kind, they do push forward the "winning comes first," mentality and both underscored this sentiment with their answers Thursday.

Podborski was asked about the trash-talking snowboarders Sebastien Toutant and Maxence Parrot, who took to Twitter to criticize American foe Shaun White for his decision to withdraw from an event.

"Certainly we don't endorse it, but trash talking is part of the sub-culture of their sport. They're all big boys," said Podborski, pretending to not even sniff a hint of controversy.

Then, when asked about Canada's responsibility at these Games in terms of human rights, Aubut was firm with his response.

"We're here to take part in athletics. That is our focus. We've put the rest to the side," said Aubut. "We don't need any distractions. This is about sport. Period."

But where Aubut and Podborski really got rolling was on the subject of winning medals and Canada's objective at these Games.

"Canadians are looking for the highest, the best. This is what Canadians want us to be. At the same time, our athletes are looking for the same thing. They would be absolutely disappointed if we didn't have the highest objective," puffed Aubut.

"They put the highest pressure on themselves. They don't need it from us. What we are doing is something that should motivate them even more. We talk about having a lower goal so when we come back home, no matter the result, we are still heroes. That's not the Canadian way and it's not the way of this Canadian Olympic Committee. We are not here to participate. We are here to win."

Jones has faced a career of win or else. When she takes to the ice, everyone watching expects her to win. Whether it's the Olympics or the world championships or the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Jones is the favourite. She's spent a lot of time in the past few years deflecting questions about results and talking more about process. Easy to do in a scrum in Brandon or Red Deer, much harder to do when talking for her curling team and the entire Canadian Olympic team with a pair of politicos looking across a dais at her.

Still, it could have started to rain right there in the Main Press Centre, what with the confluence of hot air emanating from the brass and a markedly cooler breeze from the athlete.

"Every athlete at these Games wants to win and they want to win gold," said Jones, attempting to establish a slightly less black-and-white scenario than Aubut's declaration that Canada place No. 1 in the overall medal total or else.

"Being in the village and looking into the eyes of the Canadian athletes, you can see we're all here to win gold. But so is every athlete from around the world. We're all competitive, and we're here to win. The one thing I can guarantee is that we're going to put our best effort forward and try to do Canada proud and hopefully that results in Canada winning the most medals. But it's sport and anything can happen."

Podborski hasn't always been a team executive and was one of the best downhill racers in his day, winning a bronze medal at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid and the 1982 overall World Cup title. So he understands the frailties of a winning performance. But he saw Aubut's raise and pushed even more chips into the pot.

"What should we be? What should we do? We won't stand here and tell you we want to 'be in there and to do pretty good.' We're here to be No. 1. You don't strive to be pretty good. We strive to be the best," said Podborski.

"There's been a transformation in our approach. We may not win the medal count this time or the next time, but one day we will, because that's what we now strive for. We've already won more gold medals than every other country has (Canada won a record 14 gold medals in 2010). That's an amazing success."

The Canadian way has long been to celebrate our athletes no matter the result. Effort and a dignified carriage were just as important as winning. No more, say Podborski and Aubut.

"We found out after our success that we loved it. In Vancouver, we loved it and said we would stand in our streets and sing our national anthem when we won, and we would celebrate our 14 gold medals," said Podborski.

"We said it would be all right for our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and moms and dads to be the best in the world, and we would celebrate those victories."

It would be nice if Canada could be the world's social conscience and stand atop the Olympic mountain. And while the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, a priority must be chosen. That deal has been stuck and winning now comes first. Not at any cost, but certainly at a higher price than ever before.

'We are Winter' is Canada's Olympic slogan and to achieve its essence, we'll have to accept being a little colder as a people.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

 

What do you think? Who are Canadians if we stop playing nice? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 C1

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Updated on Friday, February 7, 2014 at 12:00 PM CST: replaces photo

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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