Changes are coming to the event lineup for the 2018 Winter Olympics, but will the new contests help Canada’s medal hopes?
Depends on who you ask.
Speed Skating Canada is thrilled that mass-start long-track speed skating — which features 24 skaters racing 16 laps — is now an official sport. Ottawa’s Ivanie Blondin won that event’s most recent World Cup.
“This is a very special moment for me,” she said in a statement emailed to the Star. “When (Olympic medalist) Denny Morrison texted me this morning to share the good news, I had no idea what he was talking about. When I clicked on the link he sent me, I wanted to cry. I now have the chance to come back to the country with a gold medal.”
Canada Snowboard, meanwhile, feels blindsided and disappointed. Executive director Guy Poupart supports the inclusion of a Big Air competition but says the IOC didn’t warn snowboard organizations it would eliminate parallel slalom events. He says talented young Canadians slalom snowboarders would have been ready to contend in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018.
“Slalom being dropped is really sad news. We didn’t expect this,” Poupart said. “We have very strong programs in (all snowboarding) disciplines.”
On Monday, the IOC announced Big Air snowboarding, mass start speed skating, mixed doubles curling, along with a team alpine skiing event would be contested in 2018.
The IOC has been determined to attract younger audiences, as evidenced by the addition of halfpipe and slopestyle events at recent Winter Olympics.
“The changes reflect the continued evolution of the Winter Olympic program and build on the success of recent editions of the games,” the IOC said in a statement. “They also build on the reforms outlined in Olympic Agenda 2020 which aim to create more flexibility into the Olympic program of the Olympic Games.”
Canada has a history of high performance in several of those events. In five women’s Olympic curling tournaments, Canadian women have won twice and medaled three more times. Canadian men have won two silver and three gold medals in curling since 1998.
In mass-start speed-skating, racers cover 16 laps and earn points for high placements in sprints during the fourth, eighth and 12th laps. The first three skaters to cross the line after 16 laps win medals, but with 24 skaters on the course at the same time, a spot at the front of the pack helps.
Winning mass-start means contending in early sprints while conserving energy for a late-race kick. Speed Skating Canada high performance director Brian Rahill says Canadians will excel at it in 2018 because the race combines long-track speed with the strategy involved in short-track speed skating, where Canada won three medals at the 2014 games.
“You compete in an interactive environment, where there are tactics,” Rahill said. “We have enough depth because everybody has competed in short track.”
But while mass-start speed skaters like Blondin and Rob Watson can prepare for the Games, slalom snowboarders like Sebastien Beaulieu may have to adjust their career goals.
Poupart says the event will probably survive on the World Cup circuit, and hopes to appeal to the IOC and Canadian Olympic Committee to reinstate parallel slalom to the games.
Solo slalom races will remain an Olympic event.
- With files from the Associated Press