An unfair advantage?

Rival nations protest our athletes' 'nasty' exclusive access to facilities

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VANCOUVER -- They've been accused of skulduggery, of being poor sports. They've been chastised by international competitors for pushing the boundaries of competition and Olympic ideals.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/02/2010 (4683 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

VANCOUVER — They’ve been accused of skulduggery, of being poor sports. They’ve been chastised by international competitors for pushing the boundaries of competition and Olympic ideals.

One American speedskater called them "nasty."

In fact, they’ve been called everything under the sun except, well, Canadian.

 

After all, it’s not like Canada — as they say in sports parlance — took their ball and went home. They took the entire oval.

Over a year ago, for example, Winnipeg speedskater Brittany Schussler packed up her long blades and headed West to Vancouver — along with several of her Canadian teammates, to train at the Richmond Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C. She lives in a new condominium within walking distance of the venue. She grocery-shops in the neighbourhood. Knows all the local restaurants and coffee shops.

"Now I feel the Olympics are coming to me," she told the Free Press recently. "It’s been great living out in Richmond. The oval is phenomenal. As other countries roll in and start training here… I’m going to race the way I’ve always raced and other people can adapt as they need to.

"It’s going to be different with the Olympics, no question," Schussler added. "There’s going to be security. But as far as getting groceries or getting to the oval, I’ve done all that for the last year-and-a-half."

It’s being referred to as Canada’s home-field advantage; the luxury of training in Olympic facilities — from the oval to the luge and skeleton tracks to the downhill ski slopes — all the while limiting access to their foreign competitors.

The entire long track team was given dibs on moving out to Richmond in the fall of 2008, and Speed Skating Canada was instrumental in helping move any skaters who felt it best to acclimatize to the Vancouver surroundings. At the same time, the archrival Americans began to grumble about restricted access to the Richmond oval. After all, Americans and Canadians had been training together for years at the Calgary facility.

But the cold war over ice began after 2006, when the Canucks issued an embargo on inter-country training. Richmond? Not a chance.

"They’re playing nasty," American speedskater Catherine Raney told the New York Times. "I think every one of us would love to prove to them that what they did wasn’t right, and we’re ready to show it on the ice."

"I guess I can intellectually say I understand it," added Ron Rossi, the executive director of USA Luge. "But as an honourable thing, I don’t support it, and I think it shows a lack of sportsmanship."

And in one last dig, Raney chuckled: "It’s un-Canadian. Isn’t it?"

Oh, it’s un-Canadian, all right. After all, when it comes to Olympic Games, Canada is the Best Host Ever. One Summer Games in 1976 and a Winter Games in 1988 and our nation’s gold medal total: zero.

But that’s ancient history. It’s not that Canadians want to win a gold in Vancouver — they want to win more medals than any other nation on the planet. It wasn’t an empty vow, either, with the establishment of the Own the Podium program that has pumped over $100 million into training, support staff and increased funding for athletes. Even a few million dollars set aside for several dozen top-secret projects where a squadron of biomechanical engineers and university professors used state-of-the-art equipment to measure everything from the most efficient motion with which to sweep a curling rock, to skiers equipped with missile-guidance technology.

So, no, you can’t come and practise in our rink. But thanks for asking, Germany. The Games open on Feb. 12. See you at the opening ceremonies.

Own the Podium chief executive Roger Jackson has made no apologies for the perceived slight felt by other countries who are griping, such as the Brits demanding better angle access for recording curling competitions in Vancouver or more training time on the Whistler skeleton run. And if Canadian long track skaters such as Schussler can get comfortable in the Richmond oval months in advance of the Games, why not?

Reasoned Rogers: "We’re the ones who built it. We ourselves are restricted in things like that, but because we live here and our athletes train here, obviously it’s a lot more convenient for us to use it from time to time."

Of course, there’s the other side of the loonie, don’t forget, where expectations surrounding Canada’s 200-plus-member team have never been more unforgiving. It wasn’t so long ago that the Olympics were a staging area for Canadian athletes to finish far off the podium, then legitimately complain that without proper funding they simply couldn’t compete with nations more committed to the process. Race and repeat.

The Austrians had better coaching. The Americans had more money. The Germans and Russians had both.

On the cusp of the Vancouver Games, however, those excuses are no more. And gone with them, it seems, is the aw-shucks Canadian reputation that has been replaced by a more brash, harder-edged attitude.

"You know what, I think Canada, sometimes we’re just too nice of a country," Canadian downhiller Erik Guay told the Toronto Star. "Sometimes, we need to step up like that and say, ‘We’re going to give these guys the biggest advantage we possibly can.’ And that’s the way it should be. The other nations all do it. I don’t feel bad, for one."

If Canada’s Olympic history means anything, it’s that nice guys finish fourth. So all this Olympic posturing is rather new. So was the proclamation made four years ago about a bunch of Canucks — for the first time in their nation’s history — finishing atop the Olympic medal standings.

But is that un-Canadian, too?

"Arrogance is not part of our repertoire," Jackson said in a conference call last week. "We needed a focal point to get everybody’s attention. We needed something that will be a benchmark for where we wanted to end up. It was ‘Well, why not take a crack at trying to be No. 1 in the world?’ "

And if that means taking advantage of some home cooking — and home skiing, skating and sliding — how is a Canadian athlete to refuse?

"I can’t wait to get there," offered Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner. "We have an amazing setup, we have these two amazing chefs cooking for us, the trails are beautiful, they’ll be perfectly groomed and we know them really well. And I get a lot of strength from knowing I’m competing in these beautiful Canadian mountains and I’m breathing this air, it’s cold and crisp. I know where I can get my coffee and I can get bacon — it’s the dream that’s going to happen in February. It’s awesome."

Oh, memo to the Americans: Hands off the back bacon, dude.

It’s ours, too.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

— with files from Canwest News Services

Randy Turner

Randy Turner
Reporter

Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.

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