THE WINTER GAMES

Silver Lining

CANADA’S FIRST HOCKEY MEDAL IN 24 YEARS CAPS A SUCCESSFUL WINTER OLYMPICS

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 2 1992
THE WINTER GAMES

Silver Lining

CANADA’S FIRST HOCKEY MEDAL IN 24 YEARS CAPS A SUCCESSFUL WINTER OLYMPICS

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 2 1992

Silver Lining

THE WINTER GAMES

CANADA’S FIRST HOCKEY MEDAL IN 24 YEARS CAPS A SUCCESSFUL WINTER OLYMPICS

At the Winter Olympics, all medals are not created equal. Italians look to downhill skiers like flamboyant superstar Alberto Tomba to uphold their athletic honor. Finns cheei“ on ski jumpers like their 16year-old double-gold champion, Toni Niemenin. And Germans pin their hopes on skaters, sliders and men puffing through the woods on cross-country skis with rifles strapped to their backs. For Canadians, there has never been any doubt: hockey is the test of national virility. So when the largely underrated bunch of players that made up Canada’s Olympic team faced off against a heavily favored Russian squad in the Games’ showpiece final event on Sunday, it was the most spectacular possible ending to the 16th Winter Games. And despite their defeat, the silver medal they brought home capped off what was, for Canadian athletes, the most successful Winter Olympics ever.

Even Canada’s second-place finish on Sunday was historic—the

country’s first silver in Olympic hockey since the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen lost to an American team at the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley, Calif.—the first hockey medal of any kind since a bronze at Grenoble in 1968. In their way, this year’s Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, were also historic. For the first time since 1936, when the Nazis tried to bend the Berlin Olympics to their political purposes, the Games were no longer an arena of confrontation between opposing ideological worlds. German athletes, instead of embodying the capitalist-versus-communist battle in sport as they had since the 1950s, competed under the same flag. As expected, they dominated the Games with 26 medals by bringing together the products of the old East German sports empire with West German organization and money. Russian athletes, competing as part of the dispirited Unified Team, were finally judged on their own merits rather than as products of the fast-disintegrating Soviet sports machine. Their team gathered 23 medals, the second highest number, but the days of a powerful Soviet team by any name were clearly

numbered.

By the next Winter Games, in 1994, Russians, Ukrainians and others will be competing against one another under their own national flags. Norway, which will host those Games, grabbed a surprising 20 medals last week after dominating crosscountry skiing. And Austria, with its star skier Petra Kronberger, who won two gold medals, took 21. Canada captured seven medals—two golds, three silvers and two bronze. That tied the country’s high set at the Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1932— and those were mostly bronze. As it turned out, Quebecers predominated among the Canadian medallists, reaching the podium in biathIon, short-track skating and figure skating.

Organizers of the Canadian team measured their success in other ways, too. Sixty per cent of the 117 Canadian athletes finished 16th or better in their event, a placing that the Canadian Olympic Association regards as internationally competitive. That is an improvement over the team’s 50-per-cent success rate at the Calgary Games in 1988.

But Walter Sieber, the team’s leader, acknowledged that it fell short of the 70-per-cent target set by the COA. “It’s our best result under this system,” said Sieber. “Overall, it’s a real success.”

Series: Less successful was the organization of the Games. By spreading events among 10 widely scattered locations in France’s Savoy Alps, organizers created what amounted to a series of world championships in individual sports. Skiers stayed with other skiers in remote Val d’Isère, while bobsledders stuck together atop a mountain at La Plagne. Athletes complained about being isolated, unable to attend other events and get a taste of what the Olympics are supposed to be about. “It was very difficult for them to get a sense of being together as a team,” said

Sieber. “This was not the Olympic Games, in my opinion.”

In other ways, it was a typical Games, with its schizophrenic mix of outrageous display and intensely personal devotion to the pursuit of excellence. Italy’s Tomba provided the most vivid example of the Games’ flamboyant side. The self-described “messiah of skiing” won the gold in the giant slalom last week amid an orgy of flag-waving by his Italian fans, then fell to his knees in the snow and declared that Albertville should be renamed “Tomba-ville.” At a victory party, he threw cake at his friends, and boasted that while he used to party with three women until 5 a.m., he would cut back this year and “live it up with five women until 3 a.m.” And he finally fulfilled his ambition of dating German figure skating idol Katarina Witt, who was working as a skating analyst for CBS. Having been rebuffed by her at the Calgary Games, he persuaded her to let him give her a skiing lesson last week. None of that slowed him down: on Saturday, Tomba grabbed a silver medal in the men’s slalom to add to his gold.

Scar: Canadian bobsled driver Chris Lori represented the other side of the Games: the intense pursuit of personal excellence with little hope of publicity and none at all of fat sponsorship contracts. He had to deal not only with his

international competitors, but also with intense rivalries on his own team and a coach ing staff that kept changing

the rules that decided which two of the three Canadian drivers would be able to compete. On Saturday, Lori’s sled placed fourth in the four-man race, missing a medal by a mere 11 onehundredths of a second. It was the best Olympic bobsled performance by Canadians since 1964. But that was no consolation to Lori, who wears the mark of his dedication in the scar across his chin from a crash several years ago. “1964 was a long time ago, and fourth isn’t a medal,” he said. “I want to apologize to Canadians because I know they were counting on us.” His eyes filled with tears, and his voice trailed away. With just 330 medals and more than 2,200 athletes, there were many more Chris Loris than Alberto Tombas leaving Albertville as the Games ended. But for many Canadians, winning a hockey silver—even after losing to the old Soviet team—was all that mattered.

ANDREW PHILLIPS