Olympics

Sydney Sizzle

As the Games began, Canadian athletes suffered heartbreak— and tasted gold

Andrew Phillips September 25 2000
Olympics

Sydney Sizzle

As the Games began, Canadian athletes suffered heartbreak— and tasted gold

Andrew Phillips September 25 2000

Sydney Sizzle

Olympics

As the Games began, Canadian athletes suffered heartbreak— and tasted gold

Andrew Phillips

James Deacon

First the fantasy: a giant jellyfish, a fire-breathing mechanical horse and a little girl swimming in the air, suspended by wires 30 m above a crowd of 110,000.

Then the symbolism: Cathy Freeman, 27-year-old runner and Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal, seeming to walk on water as she lights the Olympic cauldron that will burn throughout Sydney’s Games of the millennium.

Next, the bracing reality: a plunge into the chill waters of Sydney harbour as 48 women compete in the new Olympic sport of triathlon, a gruelling combination of swimming, cycling and running. Canada had high hopes, with Carol Montgomery of North Vancouver looking for a medal after a sensational season.

But as she began the third lap of her bike race through downtown Sydney, Montgomery collided with two other cyclists o and went down in a heap. She was out—

I and may miss her other event, a 10,000m race on Sept. 27. After so much work, it was tough to take. “I prepared myself for the worst—and the worst happened,” she said. “But I just don’t think it’s fair.”

Despite strong contendere, Canadians would not predict the medal haul

And finally, redemption: the only male member of the triathlon team, Simon Whitfield of Kingston, Ont., came from behind in the men’s event on Sunday morning to capture Canadas first gold of the Games. “I’ve dreamed of this my entire life,” said Whitfield, 25. “I can’t tell you how proud I am to be Canadian.”

In fact, the Games will be the ultimate test for the 10,700 athletes from 199 countries—including the rest of Canada’s squad of 311. Last week, they could only wait. Rower Emma Robinson of Winnipeg put aside thoughts of her recent battle with thyroid cancer and focused on her bid for a medal with partner Theresa Luke of 100 Mile House,

B.C. Kayaker Caroline Brunet of Lac Beauport, Que., dealt with the excitement of carrying Canada’s flag during the opening ceremony—all the while worrying about tricky winds at the Olympic regatta centre as she prepared to compete for two medals on Oct. 1, the final day of the Games. And diver Alexandre Despatie of Laval, Que., at 15 the

youngest Canadian athlete, just tried to keep the jitters away as he rubbed shoulders with the world’s best at the Olympic Village. “Being in the Village is great,” he said, “but sometimes it’s hard to keep your focus.”

Sydney’s Games will be a crucial test, too, for the beleaguered Olympic movement itself. Behind it is the uncomfortable memory of the 1996 Atlanta Games, plagued by organizational miscues and a § deadly terrorist bomb. Add to I that corruption scandals that I emerged from Salt Lake City’s I campaign to stage the Winter *■ Games of 2002, the ongoing

fight against illegal drug use, and the burdensome size of the event. Ahead lie the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, already the subject of anxious speculation about tardy preparations and terrorist threats. Between the chaos of Atlanta, the cloud over Salt Lake and the uncertainty of Athens, Sydney is the Olympics’ best chance for a flat-out triumph.

In the early days, at least, the signs were good. Australians, after casting a skeptical eye on the Games, finally embraced them. Hundreds of thousands cheered the Olympic torch as it was carried 27,000 km through outback, suburbs and surf to the spanking new Stadium Australia where Freeman lit the cauldron—a poignant gesture of reconciliation with the country’s neglected Aboriginal people. The opening ceremony, which told Australia’s story from its Aboriginal beginnings to recent waves of immigrants from around the world, was pronounced a triumph. In Sydney’s seedy Kings Cross district, even the prostitutes and drag queens who patrol the nighttime streets crowded into bars to cheer on every scene. “For freshly patriotic Australians,” Sydney’s Daily Telegraph wrote on the morning after, “it was like looking at yourself in the mirror—and really liking what you saw.”

It helps to have winners—especially in a sports-mad country that still honours Olympic medallists from decades past. On the first full day of competition, Australia already had winners, and a new national hero in its 17-year-old swimming sensation, Ian Thorpe. “The Thorpedo,” famed for his size-17 feet that power him through the pool, won two gold medals, one by setting a new world record in the 400-m freestyle.

Sydney is the Olympic movement’s best chance for a flat-out tnumph

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All that was almost—but not quite— enough to chase away the shadows over the Olympic movement. The IOC made sweeping reforms last year after an investigation of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal by its then-vice-president, Richard Pound of Montreal. But on the eve of the Sydney Games, it was clear the problems had not disappeared. Australian immigration officials refused to allow two

IOC members—one from Uzbekistan and one from Hong Kong—to enter the country because of their suspected criminal backgrounds.

The other danger to the Games is the ever-present possibility that some athletes will be found using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. The new threat this year is EPO, a synthetic form

of the hormone erythropoietin, which increases the production of red blood cells and improves endurance. Drug testers in Sydney will use a combination of two tests—one for blood and one for urine—to detect athletes using EPO. But they acknowledge that it can screen out only those who have used the drug in the three days preceding a test, a loophole that may allow unscrupulous competitors to escape detection. In Sydney, the World Anti-Doping Agency is mounting its biggest-ever operation to detect drug use. And the athlete who took the Olympic oath on behalf of all competitors at the opening ceremony, Rechelle Hawkes of Australia, added a pledge to practise “sport without doping and without drugs.” For Canada, the Games are rife with possibilities. Other strong medal contenders include Brunet in kayaking; Robinson and Luke in rowing; Marianne Limpert of Fredericton in swimming; Anne Montminy of Montreal in diving; as well as sprinters Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey. But the operative word for those leading Canadas team at Sydney is caution. In Atlanta, Canadians won 22 medals—three gold, 11 silver and eight bronze. This time out, Canadas chef de mission (or team boss), Diane Jones Konihowski, flady refuses to say how much hardware her athletes hope to bring home. They simply don’t need the pressure, she says. Konihowski knows of what she speaks: at the Montreal Games in 1976 she was a strong medal hopeful in pentathlon, but fell short. “There was huge pressure on me, and I blew it,” she said. “I let the pressure get to me, and I’m not going to do that to this team.”

Konihowski and others at the top of Canadian amateur sport may have other reasons for refusing to play a guessing game about medals. They have seen that better funding produces better performances and more medals. More financial help for athletes and better training facilities in the 1980s helped to produce record medal hauls at the Games of 1992,1994 and 1996. Privately, many sports officials fear the opposite may now be true—that the massive funding cutbacks of the 1990s may begin to take a toll in Sydney.

More tests will come this week. On the swim team, the burden of medal expectations is not borne by young, rising stars but by the same veterans who won three medals four years ago. In rowing, competition from emerging powers means that Canada may well earn fewer medals than the six it took home from Atlanta. And recent hamstring injuries to 100-m sprint stars Surin and Bailey raise questions as to whether Canada can match its track triumphs of four years ago.

Still, their 4 x 100-m relay partner Glenroy Gilbert says his teammates cannot be counted out when the sprinters take the starting line. “Bruny’s got that attitude now that he can put it all together,” says Gilbert. “Donovan trains well, but when he competes he’s on a completely different level.” At the same time, strong Canadian entries in other sports could make up for any shortfalls. The women’s water polo team and the two women’s synchronized diving pairs could all finish on the medal podium.

And, as at every Games, the test comes not only in victory, but in abject defeat. Carol Montgomery, still cradling her injured left hand after her devastating triathlon crash, was clearly upset at her own fate and at race organizers who laid out a narrow course over rutted roads that made collisions more likely. But, she was asked, was it worth all the sweat and tears to get to Sydney? Of course, she replied in a heartbeat: “I made it to the Olympic Games. I’ll always be an Olympian.” E3