Precious medals

BRUCE WALLACE March 7 1994

Precious medals

BRUCE WALLACE March 7 1994

Precious medals



There are Canadians old enough to remember when Olympic hockey gold medals were something our teams just had to show up to collect, but anyone under the age of 50 has always equated Olympic hockey with quadrennial frustration. The final-game loss to Sweden added another disappointment—although one tinged with pride. For a hardworking band of NHL castoffs and hopefuls, a collection of the best-we-can-get, nearly brought Canada hockey gold for the first time since 1952—a victory, by the way, scored in nearby Oslo. Not quite this time. The silver medal may not have produced euphoria in itself, but at the 1994 Games in sub-Arctic Norway, Canadians were still on top of the world.

And these were extraordinary Games. Roll the highlights, please.

• First up, Myriam Bédard, who pushed herself past pain and her critics to win two gold medals in biathlon, a ski-and-shoot sport most Canadians could hardly describe a month ago. They know now.

• Cut to Jean-Luc Brassard, the cheerful Quebecer, who swished and twisted down a knee-grinding moguls hill to win gold—and converts to the airy world of freestyle skiing.

• A hurrah for the aging aerialists Philippe LaRoche and Lloyd Langlois, who soared onto an Olympic podium after careers spent on the sporting fringe—recognized as legitimate athletes at last.

• And one more look at leaping Elvis Stojko, who came into the Games as the dauphin of Canadian figure skating and leaves as King, with a silver medal that marked a changing of the guard.

But these were truly the Norwegian Winter Games. So a curtain call, too, for the parade of magnificent athletes from the small country with the big medal total: the iron man of the speed-skating oval Johann Olav Koss, the levitating ski jumper Espen Bredesen and cross-country’s tireless Bjorn Daehlie. And don’t forget the singing, flag-waving, chilled but never frosty Norwegian hosts. Lillehammer was just what the Olympics needed, a place where the Games’ voracious commercialism was drowned out—on scene, if not on television—by the Norwegians’ exuberant celebration of sport. For a taste of it, replay that stride-for-stride, breath-for-breath battle to the finish line between Daehlie and Italian Silvio Faunier in the 40-km cross-country relay. The Italians won, but so did any witnesses who call themselves sports fans.

And in between the great victories and the upsets, splice in those other frozen moments that tug at the heart: the anguished Japanese ski jumper Masahiko Harada, whose poor final jump cost his teammates an almost sure gold medal, and the distress of Canada’s talented short-track speed skaters, many of their lofty medal hopes sideswiped on the way to the podium.

For Maple Leaf-flying Canadians, the 1994 team had the country’s best Winter Olympics ever, finding a niche amidst the Norwegian and—as always— Russian juggernauts. Whatever the disappointments felt by some Canadian ath-

At an extraordinary Olympics, Canadian competitors strike a mother lode in the ice and snow of sub-Arctic Norway


letes—condolences Kurt Browning and Josée Chouinard—these Games will also be remembered for their lode of 13 medals (the old Canadian record was seven, set at Lake Placid in 1932 and tied at Albertville in 1992) and more than 30 top-eight performances. One explanation for the haul was the shorter than usual two-year span between Lillehammer and Albertville, which allowed several athletes to prolong their careers for one more crack at a medal. Another reason is that, over the last two Olympics, freestyle skiing and short-track skating—in which Canadians excel—have been added as medal sports.

The 1994 Canadian team was also the first to turn the federal government’s “best-ever” funding, which offers financial rewards to athletes if they attain high world rankings, into Olympic success. The best-ever program was established in the mid-1980s in an attempt to build a strong home team for the Calgary Olympics. But that, said Ken Read, the former downhiller and now an International Olympic Committee official, “was too short a gestation period—the real effects of good training and coaching aren’t felt for six, seven or eight years.” For proof, one need only look at Norway’s own elite sports program, which was launched in 1984 but only began paying medal dividends at the Albertville Games in 1992.

The Norwegian program was implemented over objections from a majority of its sporting federations, but the government continued to put the interests of athletes ahead of those of bureaucrats. That is not always the Canadian case. “We still spend too much money on administration and not enough on the athletes,” said Read. And some Canadian sports federations are openly at war with their athletes. The speed-skating federation spent most of the pre-Olympic period battling with its long-track skaters after officials fired popular coach

Jack Walters. He was only rehired after a long tug of wills with the skaters, but the tensions carried over to Lillehammer. After winning her silver medal in the women’s 500-m race, Winnipeg native Susan Auch said she waited 24 hours before being congratulated by Ted Houghton, president of the speed-skating association. “It’s such a small picture of what’s wrong with our country,” said Auch. ‘We’re here to skate, but all we deal with is politics and bureaucracy.” By comparison, an executive from the freestyle team’s corporate sponsor, Owens Coming, reached head freestyle coach Peter Judge by cellular phone to congratulate the team on Brassard’s gold medal while they were still on the hill.

For a repeat Olympic performance, Canadian corporations may have to get even more involved with athletic sponsorship. Almost

everyone associated with Olympic teams acknowledges that some sports disciplines are about to lose a chunk of their financial backing from Ottawa. The overburdened summer sports programs may bear the brunt of the cuts. But winter sports such as ski jumping—which did not send a single Canadian athlete to Lillehammer—may be squeezed to make way for new additions to the Winter Olympic program, such as women’s hockey and curling.

In that regard, Bédard’s biathlon victories may have saved the funding for her sport—from both the government and her corporate sponsors. As it is, Bédard laments the lack of biathlon training facilities in Quebec, where the only site is on the Valcartier military base. In the summers, she has to get up at 5:30 in the morning to be on the range—the military cadets take over at 8 a.m. And Bédard’s access to the base is eased by the fact that she trains with her boyfriend, Jean Paquet, who is a soldier.

“If it is hard for me to get in, imagine the difficulty for a young kid who wants to practise the biathlon,” Bédard said.

But whether Canada ever produces another Myriam Bédard may depend more on a change in public attitudes towards sports that are not yet part of the Canadian mainstream. After winning a biathlon bronze medal in Albertville, Bédard encountered hostility during radio interviews in Quebec from people who objected to the sport’s militaristic origins. “People who are against rifles were mad at me that this is a sport,” said Bédard, who has since participated in government advertising campaigns for gun safety.

“At least people now know that what I do is not abnormal.” But her sport, like ski jumping, remains foreign to Canadians, an import from the Old World. While lacing on

skates may be an almost involuntary act for a Canadian, young athletes must make a conscious decision to strap on skis and jump off the side of a mountain.

Even silver medallist Auch acknowledges that longtrack speed skating enjoys only marginal popularity— speed skating’s growth potential is in short track, which can be done indoors out of the cold, at any hockey arena. Auch began speed skating with her brother, Derrick, at age 9, because the choice was “either that or Brownies,” she said, recalling her early skating days in Winnipeg’s Transcona district. “Nobody in our neighborhood ever heard of speed skating,” Auch said. “I was always embarrassed to be seen with my speed skates.” She has, however, benefited greatly from the building of the indoor Olympic Oval in Calgary, where she now lives and trains.

Like Bédard’s golds, Auch’s silver medal may encour-

age young Canadians to try something new. But if they are ever to compete with hockey and figure skating, other winter sports will need wider exposure between Olympic Games. “It’s great to have two weeks of blanket coverage for these sports,” said Read. “But we need it on a more sustained basis. Otherwise, these Games will be remembered as a brief shining moment.”

Even Canada’s Olympic hockey program may be coming to an end. By the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the NHL is expected to free its players to allow every hockey nation to field a dream team. But the pros will have to search their hearts and souls to find the spirit that drove the 1994 model of Team Canada.

This was a team that built momentum from its schedule—it started with easier opponents and worked its way up—until it had the confidence to win. And unlike Canadian Olympic squads past, this one was able to score to get back into games.

No surrender. “That’s what the red and white is all about,’ said winger Paul Kariya, who struggled early in the tournament but eventually led the Canadian attack with his creative play- %


Norway already had a Dream Team in this Olympics: that, in fact, was the nickname for the men’s alpine skiers because they had a habit of forgetting their jackets, boots or skis on g occasion. The Day§ dream Team. But one morning last week, o snapping out of their | reveries, Lass Kjus, §

Kjetil André Aamodt and Harald Nilsen swept the medals in the men’s combined alpine event, backed by the wild thudding of gloved hands clapping. The Norwegians brought so much sportsmanship to these Games that they could easily be pardoned for waving flags and singing “Victory’s Ours.” On this day, everybody was a Norwegian. Afterward, when the skiers had been given their flowers, they jumped down from the podium to dance with the flower girls in the snow. Around and around they went, waltzing, as the crowd sang and cheered and waved their flags under the spell of the cold, clear Norwegian sky. □