Beijing Olympics: Short-track speedskating and how Quebec does circles around the rest of Canada

There’s no denying it, Quebec is the true powerhouse in Canada when it comes to short-track speedskating.

Of the 10 Canadians competing in short-track events at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, nine hail from La Belle Province.

Leading team Canada are Olympic veterans Charles Hamelin, whose Winter Games hardware includes three gold, one silver and a bronze; Kim Boutin, the only triple medalist in Pyeonchang in 2018; and Pascal Dion, who holds the 2021 World Cup title in the 1,000-metre distance.

Rounding out the team from Quebec are Olympic rookies Steven Dubois, Maxime Laoun, Jordan Pierre-Gilles, Danaé Blais, Florence Brunelle and Alyson Charles. Courtney Sarault from Moncton, N.B., is the other team member.

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With five medals to his name, Hamelin, a 37-year-old from Sainte-Julie, Que., is tied as Canada’s most decorated male Winter Olympian.

It’s an honour he shares with fellow speed skaters Marc Gagnon and François-Louis Tremblay — both now retired and both from Quebec.

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Beijing Olympics 2022: Canada names flag bearers for opening ceremonies

Robert Dubreuil, director general of the Quebec speed skating federation, said several factors explain the province’s dominance of the sport in Canada.

We have 50 clubs, so we have a good base of competitors among those 6,000-plus members,” he said.

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In comparison, Ontario and B.C. average about 25 clubs each with memberships of fewer than 3,000 skaters.

“So you see the difference, the two together, they don’t even total Quebec,” Dubreuil said. By having those numbers, we have greater competitions and a greater circuit of competitions.”

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It has also allowed for the creation of regional training centres, again increasing the chances of producing high-level athletes.

It then becomes a circle that feeds itself, according to Dubreuil.

“When you have results, well, you interest more people,” he said.

And while not pretending to be an expert in socio-cultural matters — Dubreuil floated the idea that short track might just be a sport that’s more appealing to Quebecers.

“I would say that it might fit more with the Latin blood,” he said. “You know, it’s a show, the short track. It gets you emotion, lots of action. It’s quick. It might be closer to the Latin culture of Quebecers down to a point.

Regardless of the reasons, Quebec’s dominance of the sport isn’t anything new.

Since becoming an official Olympic discipline at the 1992 Games in Albertville, only 10 athletes from outside of Quebec have earned a spot on Team Canada.

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In 30 short years, short track has become one of the country’s most successful Olympic winter sports with a medal count of 33. It ranks second behind its cousin, long-track speed skating, which has 37 medals.

Dubreuil remembers a time though when Quebec also ruled the oval in long track. Anyone old enough will remember Gaétan Boucher skating to victory, not once but twice in Sarajevo in 1984.

Out of 16 athletes competing in long track at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, 13 were from Quebec according to Dubreuil.

By the time the next Games rolled around, that number fell to two out of nine. Dubreuil believes the arrival of a covered ice oval in Calgary in 1987 had a lot to do with the drop.

In Quebec, athletes were training on an outdoor oval.

“What it means with the weather, we were skating only four months instead of being able to skate all year long,” Dubreuil said, adding the quality of the ice was also an issue.

Short track doesn’t have those same limitations.

Click to play video: '2018 Olympic athlete Charles Hamelin: Short track specialist eyeing history'
2018 Olympic athlete Charles Hamelin: Short track specialist eyeing history

A brand new training centre in Quebec City with indoor facilities for both long and short track, however, could lead to the resurgence of long-track skaters from the province.

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That is one of the objectives of the federation, Dubreuil said.

You know we’re maybe at 20 per cent now, but we believe in the long term with the short track base we have, that we could come back to 50 per cent for the long track without jeopardizing our short track,” he said. “We believe we have enough talent and enough skaters.”

The federation’s ultimate goal though is to see the sport grow, and not just in Quebec.

“Even if we are dominant in short track, we’re always going to assist in other provinces,” Dubreuil said. “To be considered a big sport … you need competition.”

“The worst-case scenario is to dominate so much that your sport is not taken seriously anymore.” 

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