Canadian team faces many hurdles

Canada’s road to London has been a bumpy one.

Canada’s road to London has been a bumpy one.

Equestrian champion Eric Lamaze’s horse died during a competition, Alex Despatie smacked his head on the diving board, triathlete Paula Findlay has been hindered by a hip injury and Canada’s star hurdlers didn’t even make the Olympic team.

Three-time world champion boxer Mary Spencer required divine intervention by the International Olympic Committee just to get to the Games.

And then there was cyclist Ryder Hesjedal, who went down in a pile of bodies and bikes during the Tour de France.

The silver lining is he’ll get some rest before the men’s road race and time trial in London.

But Canada’s athletes will put the pre-Games bad luck behind them when the Summer Olympics officially kick off with Friday’s opening ceremonies in East London.

Competition starts earlier than that though. Canada faces Japan in a preliminary-round women’s soccer match Wednesday.

Simon Whitfield, winner of triathlon gold in 2000 and silver in 2008, will carry the Maple Leaf into the opening ceremonies and represent the 277 Canadians competing.

Canada’s objective of a top-12 finish among the 200-odd countries is a reach.

Using the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as a gauge, Canada needs 24 medals, which would be the most ever for this country at a non-boycotted Summer Games. The previous high was 22 in 1996.

Canada tied for 14th in Beijing with 18 and won just 12 in Athens in 2004 to finish 19th.

The country isn’t as deep in summer-sport talent as it is in winter. Canada can’t afford any more misfortune if it is to finish among the top dozen countries in London.

“Top 12 in 2012 is an ambitious goal, but when you’re striving for new levels of excellence, that’s always going to be challenging,” says Chris Overholt, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Think of the total number of medals to be won as a pie. China, the United States, host Britain, Russia, Germany and Australia will eat almost half of it.

Japan, France, Italy and South Korea will fork out healthy slices for themselves. Canada has to elbow aside Spain, Cuba, Belarus, Brazil, the Netherlands and Ukraine to get a piece.

“The medal race is so, so tight,” says Anne Merklinger, head of the Own The Podium program. “We know one medal is going to make the difference between 13th and 20th.”

If you put stock in such things, a USA Today online projector forecasts that Canada wins 18 medals again with five gold, six silver and seven bronze.

USA Today says the number is “based on an algorithm that monitors athletes’ performances leading up to the Games.”

Sports Illustrated projects 17 medals (2-8-7) for Canada.

Kayaker Adam van Koeverden of Oakville, Ont., in the 1,000 metres and mountain biker Catharine Pendrel of Kamloops, B.C., are reigning world champions in their respective sports.

The glamour sports of swimming and track and field provide a mother lode of medal chances. Canada isn’t a major player in either, with a bronze in each in Beijing.

Improvement is expected in both, however, with three medals in swimming and two at the track the stated goal for London.

Shot putter Dylan Armstrong of Kamloops can end Canada’s century-long medal drought in throwing events.

Victoria distance swimmer Ryan Cochrane intends to upgrade the bronze he won in the 1,500 in Beijing and go for a second medal in the 400.

The bulk of Canada’s medals will likely come from rowing, cycling, trampoline, women’s wrestling and canoe/kayak. The country has a couple of medal opportunities on the opening weekend.

Cochrane is a contender in the 400-metre freestyle Saturday, although his bread-and-butter event is the 1,500 on Aug. 4

The diving duo of Emilie Heymans of St-Lambert, Que., and Jennifer Abel of Laval, Que., are potential medallists in women’s synchronized springboard Sunday. One of the best in the world on springboard, Abel is a double-medal candidate.

Canada was a slow starter in both 2004 and 2008. The opening seven days of competition in Athens produced one bronze medal. Canada was shut out the first seven days in Beijing.

Canadian athletes to watch during London’s opening week include Armstrong, Ontario trampolinists Karen Cockburn, Rosannagh MacLennan and Jason Burnett, the rowing eights and cyclists Hesjedal of Victoria and Clara Hughes of Glen Sutton, Que., in the time trial.

Concerns over the heat and smog in Beijing have been replaced by worries over transportation, too much rain and security controversies in London.

A waterlogged June has organizers nervous about the equestrian and rowing venues. London’s forecast for the next couple of days is warm and sunny, but more rain is predicted for Friday. A last-minute shortfall in the number of security guards needed led to an influx of British soldiers and policemen.

There is also the matter of getting around a city of eight million people with the added congestion of the Olympic hordes.

Despite the slings and arrows, the Canadian team has reasons to be optimistic. The rowing team is poised to stand on the podium multiple times.

The cycling team has improved massively with medal contenders on the road, track and trail.

Despatie required stitches and time away from the pool after his training mishap, but the Laval diver is back on the boards.

Spencer lost her opening bout of the world championship, which was also an Olympic qualifier, in May.

After an agonizing wait, the IOC’s Tripartite Commission gave her a wild-card spot in the 75-kilogram class. The Wiarton, Ont., fighter still has a chance to show she’s one of the best in the world.

Former world champion hurdler Perdita Felicien and Beijing bronze medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep didn’t make it to London.

Calgary heptathlete Jessica Zelinka stunned everyone by winning the event at trials, so she’ll compete in both hurdles and heptathlon in London.

Rising talents Nikkita Holder of Pickering, Ont., and Phylicia George of Markham, Ont., join Zelinka in women’s hurdles, which is the one track and field event in which Canada has depth.

Edmonton’s Findlay was the woman to beat in triathlon a year ago, but she’s had to baby a nagging hip injury. Her first international race this year will be the Olympic triathlon. What Victoria’s Whitfield has left in the tank and how rising star Kyle Jones of Oakville, Ont., performs lends intrigue to the men’s race.

Lamaze’s star horse Hickstead may be gone — he suffered a fatal aortic aneurysm during a competition in November — but the rider from Schomberg, Ont., and the rest of the show jumping team are talented and seasoned. If they, and their horses, can put it all together on the day as they did for silver in 2008, another medal in the team event is possible.

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