ATHENS'04

LOWERING THE BAR

With a small team raised in an era of tight money and organizational disarray, Canada's medal tally took a tumble-as expected

KEN MACQUEEN September 6 2004
ATHENS'04

LOWERING THE BAR

With a small team raised in an era of tight money and organizational disarray, Canada's medal tally took a tumble-as expected

KEN MACQUEEN September 6 2004

LOWERING THE BAR

With a small team raised in an era of tight money and organizational disarray, Canada's medal tally took a tumble-as expected

ATHENS'04

KEN MACQUEEN

THERE’S A HILL in the Vouliagmeni triathlon course outside Athens that starts slowly, then gets worse as it climbs away from the blue Saronic Gulf into a prime residential section and a world of hurt. The final 200 m are a 20-per-cent grade, as extreme an incline as any of Canada’s five Olympic triathletes have seen. The course required cresting this beast five times during the 40-km bike portion of the race—after a 1,500-m swim and before a 10-km run.

The course here was not kind to Canadians. The best triathlon showing was an 11th place finish by Simon Whitfield, who’d won

gold four years ago at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. He blamed a “tactical en-or” he made on that hill in letting a lead pack of cyclists slip away early in the race, “when I probably shoulda

rode up,” he said with a tired grin. “Coulda, shoulda, woulda—that doesn’t work, does it?”

Well, it’s not the Olympic ideals of faster, higher, stronger, but coulda, shoulda, woulda figured prominently in the post-event analysis of many a crestfallen Canadian. These Games were an uphill slog for most of the nation’s 267 Olympians here. By Saturday, though, the Canadians fought back. Mountain biker Marie-Hélène Prémont won silver. Sailors Ross Macdonald and Mike Wolfs took silver in the Star class. And kayaker Adam van Koeverden grabbed

Under pressure, Shewfelt and Verbeek delivered stirring medal performances

gold and bronze in the K1 500 and 1000, while teammate Caroline Brunet paddled to bronze in the women’s K1 500.

The medal showing was about what most seasoned observers expected in Athens from a small team that has grown up during a period of binding cutbacks and organizational disarray in many sport federations. But it left Canada with fewer than half the medals needed to reach the ridiculously optimistic goal of an eighth-place finish set by Canadian Olympic Committee president Michael Chambers. It wasn’t until Day 14, in fact, that Canada finally overtook the amphibious

Michael Phelps, the U.S. swimmer who took home a total of eight medals of his own.

That got people talking. “Canada, Russia producing excuses not results,” read a head-

line in the Athens News in a report on two under-performing teams. “The nation’s Olympic theme has been Woe, Canada,” said Philadelphia Inquirer writer Frank Fitzpatrick, who noted with painful accuracy that Australia is near the top of the medal count despite a population one-third smaller than Canada’s. Those darned Aussies prey on many Canadian minds, including head triathlon coach Lance Watson, whose international stable of clients includes a number of the world’s best racers. “We’ve got the same set of genetic goods,” he says. “I

just wonder if we’re happy to be here and to let other people do great things.” He poses a question that’s nagged the national team for two sweat-soaked weeks. “What is it about the Canadian sports psyche,” Watson asks, “that’s not rising to the challenge here at the Olympics?”

The answer lies somewhere within, for the Greeks offered no room for excuses. The Games were a brilliant success as the closing ceremony approached. The heat was hardly out of line for an Athenian summer. The venues were top rate. And the amiable and magnanimous hosts proved willing to forgive the International Olympic Committee and much of the sporting world for harbouring doubts that the Athens Organizing Committee could manage much more than a souvlaki stand. True, there were the

Giddy track cyclist Lori-Ann Muenzer, 38, of Edmonton, won cycling gold in the women’s sprint.

What it feels like to win: “I would say that this means the world to me, but I think it actually means the universe.” On her advanced age: “It’s just a number on my driver’s licence.”

If her smile was any bigger:

“I’d probably swallow my head.”

inevitable judging controversies, not of Greece’s making, and three of its athletes were caught up in doping scandals. But other Greek heroes rose in their stead to surpass the medal count of certain larger and more prosperous countries that could be named.

To be sure, Canada achieved its own stellar performances, made all the more remarkable as the national pressure mounted daily for something to cheer about. Kyle Shewfelt, 22, delivered Canada’s first gold— and the country’s first-ever artistic gymnastics medal—in a nearly flawless floor exercise, despite an ankle injury that left him unable to practise his routine all spring. Up in the stands, armed with lucky charms, his family and friends erupted in elation and relief. His girlfriend Melissa Mitzner, a provincial-level gymnastics coach in Calgary, knows better than most the sweat and sacrifice it had taken to get to Athens. “I knew as soon

as I watched his last tumbling line,” she said, fingering a lucky necklace given to her the day before by an Athenian shopkeeper. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, we got it!’ ” His mother, Nola, had the priceless privilege of seeing her son achieve a lifelong dream. Father Wes, a man of few words this most special of evenings, said simply: “I’ll never listen to the national anthem again without thinking of that moment.”

For a brief time last week, it looked as if he’d inspired a roll. Later that night at the track, Montreal’s Chantal Petitclerc won

gold in the wheelchair 800 m, a demonstration event. “Before my race, Perdita Felicien and some other Canadian athletes came over to encourage me Petitclerc said. “In their eyes,

I’m an Olympian.” The next day wrestler Tonya Verbeek surprised most everyone but parents Jerry and Kathy with a silver medal performance. It was her mom and dad’s first overseas trip ever, and for it to culminate in a medal was almost beyond imagining. “People don’t know what it takes to get to the top of your sport,” said Jerry, who has worked 28 years at Hamilton’s Dofasco steel mill. “There’s a lot of sacrifice in it.”

A day later, Lori-Ann Muenzer, a canny veteran cyclist, won gold and the future looked as bright as the Athenian sky. Then the sun went down.

That night, top-ranked Alexandre Despatie, 19, flirted with disaster before salvaging Canada’s first-ever men’s diving medal, a silver, with a brilliant closing performance on the three-metre springboard. But in the span of a half-hour, the wheels fell off the

Rower Andrew Hoskins, 28, of Edmonton, reflects on his future after the devastating fifth-place finish by the men’s heavyweight eight: “I’ve got to start thinking about that. I haven’t got a dime in the bank. There’s no way we’re going to buy a house anytime soon, and I would love for my son to have a backyard. These are sacrifices that are beyond just me. If I continue to row, maybe I’m just being selfish.”

wagon: pole vaulters Stephanie McCann and Dana Ellis were brought down to earth in the finals by two Russians who seem to exist in a world without gravity. The Canadian baseball team, fighting for a spot in the gold-medal game, succumbed to the Cubans, the eventual tournament winners, in the semi-finals. The next day the Canadians lost bronze to the Japanese. The chance to wear a Canadian uniform had to be consolation enough for veteran minor-leaguer Andy Stewart. “It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” he said, “to play for the name on the front of your jersey instead of the one on your back.”

Against the backdrop of these travails, world champion 100-m hurdler Perdita Felicien lined up in the starting blocks for the race of her life. The winning time, for American Joanna Hayes, was an Olympic record 12.37 seconds. For Felicien the race lasted perhaps two seconds, until she crashed into the first hurdle, knocking down Russian Irina Shevchenko as she fell. Two Olympic dreams died that night.

Felicien’s anguish was palpable as she met later with an uncharacteristically gentle group of Canadian reporters with no stomach to add to notebooks already full of tears and hurt. She’d seen so many athletes at their peak fall short at Games—only days before, tower diver Emilie Heymans was in contention for gold but fell into fourth place with a weak final dive. “I’ve always said that’s not me. I won’t be that person. I’ve always said for my end to come like this is not my destiny. This is not my fate,” Felicien said with an angry shrug. “Tittle did I know, right?” At once gracious and determined, she vowed to be back for the 2008 Games in Beijing. “I’m going to go home and bawl my eyes out,” she said, “but you better believe they’re going to have a force to reckon with these next four years.”

Canadian sport needs its own equivalent of a good cry. Both Canada and Australia had dismal finishes after the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. Australians went home and committed resources and political will to rebuilding as a summer sporting power.

A sombre Diane Cummins, 30, of Victoria, the world’s seventh-ranked 800-m runner going into Athens, after failing to qualify for the final: “People at home, you know, just love us. We’re trying as hard as we can. We don’t want to fail. And if we fail, we don’t want you to make us feel like we disappointed you. No one wants to disappoint anyone. Especially at the Olympic Games.”

Canada bumbled along with bandages and bureaucratic studies.

More will surely follow. Sports Minister Stephen Owen, visiting athletes earlier in the Games, spoke of an extra $30 million committed this year to amateur sport funding. Many sports administrators fear another temporary fix, when what’s needed is stable funding and a coherent strategy. If past practice holds, temporary Olympic fans will have already tuned back to the highpriced talent of professional sport. Reports will be written. Politicians will move on.

The athletes themselves will retire, or return to varying degrees of obscurity, penury and sacrifice. Back at the triathlon course, Brent McMahon looks forward to a month off after battering his 23-year-old body to the point of injury just to qualify for these Games. He’ll celebrate with a leg operation. Whitfield will marry fiancée Jennie Sprigings, help build their organic farm on B.C.’s Salt Spring Island and do grassroots evangelism for his sport. Jill Savege—who wiped out when her bike slipped on a grease slickwill nurse a chewed-up thigh and a rippedup shoulder. Her Olympics were reduced to this: finishing that damn race when pain and common sense dictated otherwise.

In four years, they, or others like them, will be at the Beijing Games to confront whatever hills or hurdles or opponents their sports provide. As mundane as it sounds, they’ll have already triumphed over greater obstacles: doubts and debt, public indifference and the prospect of failure. You see that in the winners here, and in the losers, too.

ON THE WEB For our complete 2004 Summer Games coverage, including reader polls, photo gallery and wrap-up, visit www.macleans.ca/athens2004