Fans of Canada and the U.S. at the Olympic men's luge doubles competition on Wednesday. Reuters         Sochi, Russia
At a recent women's hockey game in Sochi, American fans did what American fans have been doing from time immemorial: They started chanting "U-S-A." This time, however, they were drowned out by an unfamiliar counter-chant: "Ca-na-da, Ca-na-da."
So it goes at these Olympics, where Canadians are seemingly everywhere, waving flags and sporting red-and-white gear—outnumbered, it seems, only by Russians. Suddenly the maple leaf has become a formidable force and a nation known for displays of politeness is flashing signs of swagger.
"It used to be that we wouldn't say, 'We want to win,'" said Chelsey Collinge, dressed for hockey with a Canada jersey and scarf, a maple leaf painted over her face and hair molded into a red mohawk. Asked what changed all that, she referred to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where Canadians famously broke character with an aggressive "Own the Podium" program that didn't hesitate to throw elbows at their neighbor to the south. "It created a different feeling," Collinge said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin got a taste of Canada's new extroverted personality Saturday night when he showed up at Canada House, the team's chief gathering spot, which is best known for having a Molson beer refrigerator that can be opened only with a Canadian passport.
Stephane Roy of Quebec City, who saw the visit, said Putin was treated "like a rock star" by around 300 Canadians who took to calling him "Vlad." Roy said one eager maple-leafer rushed past Putin's security guards, put his arm around Putin and snapped a "selfie." Putin obliged and smiled, Roy said, before shaking everyone's hand. Roy explained that Canada's relationship with Russia is probably less complicated than the U.S.'s. "Canada has always been pretty neutral," he said.
The Sochi organizing committee said it won't have country-specific ticket-sales figures until after the Games. But CoSport, the only authorized seller of Olympic tickets in the country, said it has sold roughly 6,000 individual tickets in Canada. That's more than it sold there for the 2006 Turin Olympics, the last Winter Games outside Canada, the company said.
Canadian fans are also hearing their national anthem played on a satisfyingly regular basis. So far in Sochi, Canada is fifth in the overall medal race with 15 and third in gold medals with four. With the U.S. and Norway struggling, Canada has an outside shot at winning the overall medal race.

Fans say the enthusiasm of the Canadian contingent is driven in part by the country's success in Vancouver in 2010, where it became the first host nation since Norway in 1952 to lead the gold-medal count. Team Canada's gold medal in men's hockey—in a win over the U.S.—is seen by many as a transformative event: At last, Canada escaped the stigma of twice being a host country with no gold medals in any official Olympic sport—a bitter fate that befell them at both the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and 1988 Calgary Winter Games. In Calgary, Canada finished a dismal 12th in the medal count.
In the years since that dreary Calgary showing—starting in Nagano in 1998—Canada has finished in the top five in every Winter Games. In Vancouver, Canada not only won 14 golds, it set its all-time Winter Games high of 26 total medals—ranking it third behind the U.S. and Germany. The results in 2010, Canadian fan Felix Tsui said, "made everyone a bit more nationalistic."
To improve its anemic Olympic finishes, Canada's 13 winter national sport organizations in 2004 launched Own the Podium, a mostly government-funded push to be the top nation at the Games by 2010. Funding for freestyle skiing, for instance, surged from 1.2 million Canadian dollars (currently about US$1.1 million) before the 2006 Olympics in Turin, when Canada won no freestyle medals, to C$10.3 million for Sochi, where Canada has won six so far. In all, Own the Podium pumped nearly C$70 million into Olympic support before Vancouver and more than C$80 million for Sochi.
It doesn't hurt that Canada excels in the sports that are expanding: There are 10 freestyle-skiing events in Sochi, including men's and women's competitions, up from four in Turin.
"The Canadian government decided this was important," said Canadian alpine skier Eric Guay. "They put some money behind it and said 'We expect medals.'" Suddenly, he added, "Tenth place wasn't good enough anymore. People wanted to win."
Getting to Sochi wasn't easy for many Canadians. Fans described trips to Russia that took days and flights through four or five cities to come to the Games. Douglas Mann from Knutsford, British Columbia, spent just over C$5,400 on tickets. After Vancouver, he said, Canadians, "just got hooked on the atmosphere that the Olympics brings."
Collinge, 26, who is from Rocky Mountain, Nova Scotia, came with her boyfriend, Josh Straub, who also wore head-to-toe Canada attire. The couple plotted a slow course across Olympic Park on Sunday as swarms of spectators asked to pose with them for photos. Any reluctance to brag about Team Canada was gone. "This is our Olympics. We play a lot of winter sports and we're good at them," she said.