Canada has raised the white flag in the face of a U.S. juggernaut, conceding that it won’t achieve its bold ambition of finishing atop the medals table at the Vancouver Olympics.
"We are going to be short of our goal," said Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, at the news briefing Monday — the start of the games’ final week. Through most of the day’s competition, Canada was tied for fifth in the medal standings with nine, far behind the United States with 24.
Canada spent $117 million over the past five years — a mix of government and private funding — on its Own The Podium program, a plan to win the medals race by earmarking extra financial support for contending athletes.
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"We’d be living in a fool’s paradise if we said we were going to catch the Americans and win," Rudge said. "They are way out ahead at this point."
Sunday turned out to be a particularly disappointing day for the Canadians — with two speedskaters in the women’s 1,500-meters and one finalist in the men’s ski-cross missing medal opportunities that seemed to be within their grasp.
"It was a potential multiple-medal day where we didn’t get multiple medals," Rudge said. "We’ve had a number of those and those are disappointing."
To compound the dismay, the men’s hockey team lost a first-round, non-elimination game to the United States on Sunday evening in what the Canadian broadcast consortium said was the most watched sports event in national history.
The defeat, seen by an estimated 10.6 million Canadians, raised the possibility that the star-studded home team might need to beat powerful Russia merely to advance past the quarterfinals. Many Canadians — with hockey their No. 1 passion — feel anything less than a gold medal for the men will be a devastating setback for the nation that invented the sport.
Canadian fans "were crying out for a sliver, any sliver, of good news on the weekend when we’ve essentially Blown The Podium," wrote Vancouver Sun columnist Cam Cole. "The hockey team couldn’t produce it."
Another big disappointment has been the Alpine skiing team, which got more Own The Podium money during the past four years than any other sport, but thus far has produced no medals on the familiar slopes at Whistler.
"It’s a little frustrating," Alpine Canada president Gary Allan told reporters. "Dealing with the hometown pressure did have an impact on the performances of the athletes."
Rudge declined to predict what Canada’s final medal total would be. Four years ago in Turin, after a slow start, the Canadians finished with their best-ever Winter Games total of 24 medals, good for third place after Germany and the U.S.
The brash prediction of a first-place finish in these games was greeted with mixed reactions by Canadians. Some were pleased by the uncharacteristic assertion of confidence, while others felt it smacked of arrogance and would increase pressure on the home-team athletes.
Renee Smith-Valade, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Organizing Committee, defended the pre-games buildup as a successful means of maximizing fan enthusiasm — and said there would have been intense pressure on the athletes regardless of any medal prediction.
"Own the Podium was designed to help them handle that pressure," she said Monday. "All we as the organizing committee wanted to do was make sure that when each athlete stood at the starting line, they believed fully that everything had been done. That’s all we could do.
"When the moment comes, it’s really up to the athlete," she added. "When they don’t deliver, they feel terribly bad about it. We know how hard they try."
Mike English, chief of sports performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the Americans didn’t use Own The Podium as motivational fuel.
"We didn’t take that as a threat," he said. "It’s something that every host nation prepares for. We certainly have done it with our own games that we hosted in the U.S."