The memories of the last Summer Olympic Games remain vivid—and painful. The two most indelible images from the 1988 Seoul Games are those of sprinter Ben Johnson, boastful finger raised high, as he crossed the finish line of the 100-m track in an almost incomprehensible 9.79 seconds—and that of Carol Anne Letheren, chef de mission of Canada’s delegation to the Seoul Games, as she announced three days later that she had reclaimed Johnson’s gold medal after he had been found to have used an illegal anabolic steroid. Now, six months away from another Summer Games, opening on July 25 in Barcelona, a new generation of Canadian athletes is running, swimming, boxing and working themselves into fighting trim. Their unstated mission, beyond even the desire to win Olympic gold, silver or bronze: to dispel the lingering shame of Seoul.
Declared decathlete Michael Smith: “We had a terrible tragedy in Seoul, but I really believe we can be competitive without steroids.”
How competitive Canada’s athletes will be at Barcelona is unpredictable. But they will be as drug-free as a stiff new federal anti-doping program can make the approximately 400 young men and women who will be picked for the team. Canadian preparations for Spain reveal another new twist, as well: in a sea change in training ethics, top officials have banished the win-at-all-costs attitude that, they now assert, led to Johnson’s decision to cheat. Instead, they are urging Canadian athletes simply to enjoy their Olympic experience. Said Sherif Alaily of Montreal, chief operating officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee: “There is now much more desire to participate than to go for the medals at any price.” Despite those modest goals, many Canadian coaches and athletes predict that Canada could see its medal count in Barcelona surpass the
three gold, two silver and five bronze won in Seoul (not counting Johnson’s). That confidence rests on first-place and top-three finishes by more than a dozen Canadian athletes in international competitions over the past 24 months.
Among the sports in which Canadians have excelled are the decathlon, rowing, swimming and synchronized swimming, boxing, yachting, equestrian dressage and shooting. In the most glittering triumph, Montreal synchronized swimmer Sylvie Fréchette scored seven perfect 10s at Perth, Australia, in the world championships in her sport last January. For his part, Smith won the gold at the world decathlon championships last year in Austria.
For athletes participating at the Barcelona Games, the experience is certain to be memorable regardless of how many medals Canadians win. With six months to go before the arrival of 15,000 athletes from more than 161 countries, the two million residents of the ancient Catalonian capital are watching the final touches being put on one of the most ambitious Olympic building booms ever.
To prepare for the Games, Barcelona is spending $2.5 billion to build new Olympic facilities and public works projects. (By comparison, Korea spent just over $3.2 billion on facilities for the Seoul Games.) The main Olympic sites in Spain will be the elegant 65,000seat Montjuic Stadium, an outdoor facility built in 1929, and the new 15,000-seat Palau d’Esports Sant Jordi sports arena, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, for major indoor events.
Montjuic Stadium is where Smith, 24, will pit his skills against the world’s best. The six-foot, six-inch athlete from Kenora, Ont., must prove his mettle in discus, shot put and javelin throws, the 100-, 400and 1,500-m track events, the high jump, pole vault, long jump and the 110-m hurdles. The decathlon is a contest regarded as the most gruelling in the Olympics—and one for which Smith is preparing by working out almost eight hours a day at the University of Toronto athletic centre. Smith, a student at the university’s commerce faculty, typifies the new style of Canadian Olympic athlete: he is an enthusiastic exponent of clean competition. “If I have influenced younger athletes for the better, that’s good,” said Smith. “But I just want to be myself and do the best I can.”
Across the country, world single-sculls champion Silken Laumann, 27, trains daily at Elk Lake, on the outskirts of Victoria. The fivefoot, 11-inch, 155-lb. Laumann defeated her archrival Elisabeta Lipa of Romania for the world title in Vienna last August. Back home, she repeatedly propels her sleek 26-foot craft across the pond’s dappled surface, trying to maintain her standing as the fastest in the world. “There is a new wave of excitement,” said Laumann of her prospects as she trained last week. “We’ve turned up the intensity.” Despite a disappointing record in 1988— one silver and one bronze medal—Canada’s swimmers have long placed in the top ranks of world competition. Now, a new generation of Canadian swimmers has emerged, led by world short-course backstroke champion Mark Tewksbury, 23, of Calgary. While acknowledging that Canada faces stiff competition from traditional German, American and Australian rivals, Olympic swimming coach David Johnson of Edmonton was still optimistic. Said Johnson: “If we outwork them, we can still be in the medals.” And four years after a disappointing Olympic debut at Seoul, Tewksbury echoes Smith’s determination to turn in the best performance of his life in Barcelona. “I have been in two world cups and the Olympics,” said the swimmer. “I just want to do the best I can.” Canada’s boxers, meanwhile, hope to repeat the success in the ring that saw them return
from Korea with one gold, one silver and one bronze medal. But first they have to qualify for the Olympics in the various weight divisions at international matches to be held in the Dominican Republic this spring. For his part, middleweight Chris Johnson, 20, of Kitchener, Ont., who won the middleweight gold at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, has developed a unique training method. Avoiding comfortable training camps, he works out in a ring built on the dirt floor of a drafty plumbers’ warehouse in his home town. Said the boxer: “Training the way I do keeps me hungry.”
While Canada’s boxers attempt to pummel their way to victory, solo synchronized swimmer Fréchette, 25, the reigning world champion, stakes her Olympic hopes on grace and endurance. After her flawless performance at the 1991 worlds, Fréchette confidently predicts that she will vanquish her major competitors from the United States and Japan next summer. Said the swimmer: “My routine will be perfect.”
In team sports like soccer, volleyball and basketball, Canada has traditionally fared poorly, and most of the national teams are now preparing for stiff Olympic qualifying touma-
ments with no certainty of winning berths at Barcelona. Leslie Wilson, who manages Canada’s Vancouverbased Olympic soccer team, expresses a common hope of many such squads that experience will secure a respectable showing against such traditional powerhouses as the Americans, Chinese and Germans. Said Wilson: “We have a high work ethic and play for one another. That will be our strength.”
But plainly, Barcelona will be more than just another Olympic contest for Canadians. In the wake of Ben Johnson’s disgrace, an inquiry by Charles Dubin, now chief justice of Ontario, exposed widespread abuse of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by top Canadian and international athletes. Last g April, the federal governo ment created the Canadian s Anti-Doping Association to
0 carry out random drug tests
1 on Canada’s top athletes. u Casey Wade, the Ottawa-
based association’s director of programs, said that in 1992 alone, it could conduct as many as 2,500 tests on Canada’s top athletes, including its Olympians.
But while Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Scandinavian countries—none of them Olympic powers—have tough, independent anti-drug programs, many other Olympic countries do not. The United States relies on schools and individual sports associations to police their own athletes—the same approach that existed in Canada until the Johnson scandal. And the Germans are still trying to weed out drug use among athletes from that country’s formerly Communist east who have long relied on them. Acknowledged Wade: “There is still a lot of work to do internationally.”
Clearly, decathlete Michael Smith’s conviction that hard work—and hard work alone— will carry him and his teammates to the medal stand in Spain is shared by hundreds of other Canadian athletes. Millions of their fellow citizens, eager to lay to rest the ghost of a brilliant victory that turned to humiliation in Seoul, can only hope that they are right.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.