Best in the world


MARY NEMETH August 12 1996

Best in the world


MARY NEMETH August 12 1996

Best in the world




Long after the hot Atlanta sun set on the Centennial Olympic Games, it will be the athletes who will be remembered best. When the voices of the myriad T-shirt hawkers fall silent and even the sad memory of the deadly bomb blast in Centennial Olympic Park begins to fade, the names of the competitors will still be inscribed in the record books—stars such as American Michael Johnson, the first man ever to win both the 200-m and 400-m races, or Canada’s Donovan Bailey, who set a blistering world record in the 100-m dash and anchored the victorious Canadian sprint relay team. Some, like Ghada Shouaa, will forever hold a special place in national sports history: the 24-year-old Syrian won the heptathlon last week, earning her country’s first Olympic gold medal ever. And Rosey Edeh, who broke the Canadian record in the 400-m hurdles was among other athletes who swam or cycled or jumped or raced to national or regional records or who simply set personal bests, whose accomplishments will be duly recorded for posterity. For all the flash, for all the bigmoney marketing and sponsorship deals, the Games remain at heart a test of human strength and speed and will.

For Canadians, it was a test well met. Witness the electrifying gold-medal performance of the men’s 4 x 100-m relay team. In the heats and semifinals, Carlton Chambers, Glenroy Gilbert, Bruny Surin and Bailey had struggled with their baton passing, nearly disqualifying themselves with a poor exchange between Surin and Bailey in the first heat. But in the showdown on the final Saturday night, with Robert Esmie running the first leg in place of Chambers, the Canadians scorched the Olympic Stadium track, leaving the favored Americans well behind. So much so that Bailey, running the anchor leg, eased up and raised a finger signifying No. 1 as he crossed the finish line. Tlie Canadians then circled the

track again, slowly, joyously, and wrapped in the Maple Leaf flag. “This is better than [winning] the 100,” a grinning Bailey said before the medal ceremony, “because four of my teammates have big smiles on their faces, too.

We are going to go out there, listen to the Canadian anthem, look to the sky and it’s golden.”

Even without the relay heroics, however, Atlanta was already Canada’s most successful non-boycotted Olympic Games. After a slow start in the early days of competition, the Canadians turned on the jets, winning six medals on the second Sunday of the Games and going on to surpass Canada’s previous high of 18 medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. There were unexpected successes—and disappointments. As the Games wound down, some officials expressed concerns that decreased sports funding could make it hard for Canada to repeat such a strong performance in future.

In Atlanta, meanwhile, organizational problems and the sheer size of the Games renewed questions about the future of the Olympic movement (page 24).

Certainly, the Games had their troubles—the bombing at the crowded Centennial Olympic Park chief among them. Fly« ing shrapnel killed Alice %

Hawthorne, a 44-year-old | mother from Albany, Ga., =j and the blast injured more “ than 100 other people. I Turkish journalist Melih Uzunyol, 40, died of a heart attack while hurrying to cover the explosion. More than anything, that bombing underscored the fragility of the Olympic notions of peace and understanding through sport. Yet crowds last week seemed determined not to give in to violence or fear. Three days after the blast, people returned to the reopened park, pausing for a touching tribute to the victims.

Even the competitions themselves seemed to counter the violence with uplifting images and outstanding athletic accomplishments. There was Ethiopian Fatuma Roba, who appeared almost tireless as she ran, beaming, into Olympic Stadium to capture gold in the % women’s marathon. And there was Marie-José Pérec, | who equalled Michael Johnson’s feat by winning the ; women’s 200and 400-m events. Pérec was just one | member of an exceptionally strong team from France, ; the homeland of Pierre de Coubertin, who founded ^ the modern Olympics 100 years ago. Of course, the I

Americans won the most medals at the Atlanta Games. And 35-year-old Carl Lewis was one of their stars. He showed the grit of a true champion, refusing against the odds to yield ground to younger athletes. He was on the verge of elimination in the preliminary round of the long jump. But he pulled off a qualifying leap on his last attempt, and went on to win the event and his ninth gold medal at his fourth Olympic Games.

Canada’s long string of medal-winning performances began when Winnipeg cyclist Clara Hughes captured a bronze in the road race on the first Sunday of the Games—a feat she repeated in the time trial 13 days later on the final Saturday. And in the pool, Curtis Myden won two bronzes and Marianne Limpert a silver in the first week of competition. Then, on the mid-Games weekend, Canadians blitzed the podium, hauling in two more cycling medals and Bailey’s memorable 100-m gold, as well as a bronze in beach volleyball. That same weekend on Lake Lanier’s 2,000-m course, Canada’s stellar rowing team captured six medals—a gold, four silver and a bronze. On Saturday, double scullers Kathleen Heddle and Marnie McBean, who took gold, and single scullers Silken Laumann and Derek Porter, who both won silver, had been expected to do well. And on Sunday, the underdog men’s lightweight four—Dave Boyes of St. Catharines, Ont., Gavin Hassett of Victoria, Jeff Lay of Mississauga, Ont., and Brian Peaker of London, Ont.—also won silver, and only narrowly missed upsetting the world-champion Danes. “We gave it everything we had in the first 1,500 m, and we couldn't hang on,” said Lay. “But it was the best race the four of us have had together.”

Heddle of Vancouver and McBean of Toronto then joined with Laryssa Biesenthal of Walkerton, Ont., and Diane O’Grady of North Bay, Ont., to capture bronze in the women’s quadruple sculls behind Germany and Ukraine. And the women’s eight fought what, for Canadians, was perhaps the most stirring race of the day. In fourth place at the halfway mark, Emma Robinson of Winnipeg, Anna van der Kamp of


Port Hardy, B.C., Theresa Luke of 100 Mile House, B.C., Tosha Tsang of Calgary, Alison Korn of Nepean, Ont., Heather McDermid of Calgary, Maria Maunder of St. John’s, Nfld., «

Jessica Monroe of North Vancouver and | coxswain Lesley Thompson of London, Ont., ; charged back over the final 500 m to edge the g United States and Belarus for second place g behind Romania. “It makes this the sweetest 2j silver medal,” said Katie Burke, their coach. ^

“It’s a great reward for so much hard work.”

Even while the rowers were blazing across Lake Lanier, John Child, 29, of Scarborough,

Ont., and Mark Heese, 26, of Toronto were spiking and diving their way to a bronze medal in beach volleyball, a sport making its first appearance at the Games. Child said last week that he had no idea beach volleyball would become an Olympic sport when he first started playing six or seven years ago. “We just started playing in the summer,” he said. “The indoor season was over and we really played for the love of the game.”

Canada has a longer history in cycling—although few people expected Brian Walton to play such a prominent part in it. An affable, low-key veteran competitor from North Vancouver, Walton, 30, rode for Canada at the 1988 Olympics, placing 33rd in the road race, and he is now a full-time professional rider. But he is less well-known than some of his teammates and there was little media attention paid to the

points race, one of the most exciting events in Olympic cycling. “I am surprised how relaxed I was here,” he said afterward. “I didn’t have anything to lose and had everything to gain—no one expected anything from me.” That might all change now. In the points race, riders start en masse and make 160 laps of the 250-m track, scoring points on designated sprints every eight laps. With the race more than half over, Walton was stuck in a pack of four riders half a lap behind the leaders. But then he made a charge. “I mean, I was finished,” Walton said. “I was seeing cross-eyed.” But somehow he pulled away with 10 laps to go—winning the last sprint and a silver medal. “It’s an athlete’s dream to be on the podium, and I kept focusing on that and believing that I could do it,” Walton said. “But to actually accomplish it—it’s just great.”

Walton’s teammate, Curt Harnett, won his own medal the same day, a bronze to go with the one he won in Barcelona in 1992 and the silver he won at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. Harnett, 31, of Thunder Bay, Ont., defeated long-standing rival and friend Gary Neiwand of Australia to take the medal. “This

was really going to be my last race as far as international sprinting was concerned,” Harnett said later. “It was a motivated moment for me.”

Two days later, on July 30, it was Alison Sydor’s moment. Sydor, 29, of North Vancouver has been the world cup champion two years running and was an odds-on favorite in the women’s mountain biking race. She took the lead about 23 minutes into the first lap on a blistering hot day at Georgia International Horse Park. But Sydor said later that she knew from the start “that I wasn’t having an awesome day.” About an hour into the race, Paula Pezzo of Italy zoomed out of the pack and took the

lead. Sydor fought off a charge from American Susan DeMattei, to hold on to her No. 2 spot. Afterward, when questioned about her loss to the Italian—was it the heat? was it the course?—the straightforward Sydor made no excuses. “You know, it’s just racing,” she said. “Racing is taking what you have on the day and giving it your best effort. I certainly feel like I did that today—I’m not disappointed at all.”

Neither were Canada’s sprinters, of course. They won the 4 x 100-m world championship last August in Sweden, but the Americans missed the final because of disqualification during the heats. As a result, opponents claimed the Canadians’ title was hollow, and U.S. sprinter Jon Drummond boasted last spring that he and his teammates were going to “kick some Canadian butt.” Bailey, 28 (Oakville, Ont.), Surin, 29 (Montreal), Gilbert, 27 (Ottawa), and Esmie, 24 (Sudbury, Ont.), answered back—with emphasis. Their margin of victory was so great that it would not have mattered if the second-place Americans had put veteran Carl Lewis on the relay team, as many in Atlanta had urged. Their winning time, 37.69 seconds, was only 29 one-hundredths of a second off the U.S.-held world record. And they might well have beaten that mark if Bailey, rubbing it in, had not eased up in the last 10 m. “We could have had the world record,” said Gilbert, “but you know what? We’ll take the gold.”

And yet there was some disappointment at Olympic Stadium. Decathlete Michael Smith, 28, of Kenora, Ont, was a medal contender—one of American Dan O’Brien’s few serious challengers—going into the 10-sport, two-day event. But he ran a slow 400-m race late on the first day, and later required attention for what medical officials said was “over-hydration”—drinking too much water to offset effects of the intense heat. Although he did finish the competition, his chance for a medal was gone. ‘To get through it was an accomplishment, I guess,” said a downcast Smith, who had to withdraw from the Barcelona Games with a hamstring injury. “Four years ago, I was watching from the stands, so this, in a way, is an improvement.”

The Olympics offered other valiant efforts. The Games, after all, are about competing as much as they are about victory, and there were some strong performances even among athletes who did not win medals. For instance, Johnny Huang, 33, of Toronto defeated several tough opponents in table tennis to reach the quarter-finals, before losing to the eventual gold medallist Guoliang Liu of China. Chantal Petitclerc, 27, of Montreal finished fifth in the 800-m wheelchair race—an Olympic demonstration event. (Paralympic Games for athletes with disabilities will be held in Atlanta from Aug. 15 to 25.) Leah Pells, a 31-year-old runner from Langley, B.C., sprinted from the middle of the pack in


the women’s 1,500-m race to finish fourth in a personal best time. And wrestler Marty Calder, 29, of St. Catharines, Ont., battled his way to seventh in a field of 21 competitors. Montrealer Guivi Sissaouri wrestled all the way to the medal podium.

Sissaouri, 25, was undefeated going into his final match against American Kendall Cross. But Cross—who later said that he had studied videos of Sissaouri’s bouts in anticipation of meeting the Canadian—took an early lead, throwing Sissaouri for three points and then holding him for another two. Sissaouri scored three points himself before running out of time—and he had to settle for silver. Sissaouri immigrated to Canada from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1991 and became a Canadian citizen last year. And his silver last week was only Canada’s 10th wrestling medal in a century of Olympic competition. But Sissaouri had clearly been hoping for more—for Canada as well as for his mother, who still lives in Georgia. “Many times in world competition I get the silver,” he said. “And when I’ve called and I talked to my mom, she said,

‘Oh, you get silver again—when am I going to hear gold?’ Well,” he said with a good-natured smile, “I don't know what to say now.”

There was no shortage of words from Canada’s 10 synchronized swimmers, who seemed pleased with their powerful and dynamic free program that wowed the fans if not the judges. The adjudicators preferred the U.S. team’s pretty-as-a-floral-arrangement program, leaving the Canadians with silver and the Japanese with bronze. 0 Canada did get played—its theme was incorporated into the original music around which the team’s program was based—and Cari Read of Calgary said the swimmers gathered quietly afterward to sing the anthem. “Right now,” said Sylvie Fréchette, the 1992 individual gold medallist, “all I feel is pride—pride in how we swam and pride in the silver medals that hang around our necks.”

That silver in the pool carried the Canadian medal tally to 18, tying the 1992 total. Less than 24 hours later, cyclist Hughes’s bronze broke the Barcelona record and Halifax boxer David


Defiagbon moments later captured a silver. The Nigerian-born heavyweight, who arrived in Canada in 1991 and became a Canadian citizen in January, faced the formidable Felix Savon of Cuba in a fight for the gold. Savon, a gold medallist in 1992, out classed Defiagbon from the start of the three-round contest. "I followed the instructions of my coach, waiting fora mistake," said Defiagbon. "But he didn't make any; he fought very smart." Despite the record medal haul, some sporting officials last week said that it will be more difficult to repeat such strong per formances in the future. In 1996, Sport Canada provided $27.1 million in funds to athletes and national sport organizations in 38 separate sports-down almost 20 per cent from the $33.6 million it provided to 57 sports in 1992. "The funding cuts have already had an effect," says Cecil Smith, executive director of the Ontario Track and Field Association. "But people won't see the impact until the next generation of athletes."

In Atlanta last week, Sport Canada director-general Adam

Ostry said although the sports budget has been cut, that does not necessarily mean that “because the funding has gone down by X, this will automatically translate into a Y reduction in the medals Canadian athletes win.” He said Ottawa is trying to find ways to help sport organizations increase efficiency and obtain more support from other sources. Meanwhile, the Canadian Olympic Association, which has its own corporate support as well as endowment money from the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, will be increasing its funding to sports federations, athletes and training centres across the country.

Certainly, funding is a key factor in sporting performancemoney provides the training centres and the coaching and the opportunities for international competition. But there are other, more important yet elusive, elements in the making of top athletes—commodities like sheer guts and perseverance. Annie Pelletier showed last week that she has plenty of both. The fivefoot, five-inch springboard diver from Montreal just barely squeaked into the semifinal round in her event last week, finishing 17th of 18 qualifiers. Then, she battled her way into the final round, finishing 12th of 12 qualifiers. In the final, Pelletier— whose repertoire involved the highest degree of difficulty among the top dozen competitors—executed two solid dives to put her into fourth place, then slightly over-rotated on her third dive, falling, irretrievably it seemed, into sixth.

Still, Pelletier refused to be bowed. Her fourth dive inched her up into fifth position. And then her fifth and final dive, a beautifully executed back IV2 somersault with 2 V2 twists, drove her up to third and a place on the podium beside Chinese diver Fu Mingxia, who took gold, and Russian silver medallist Irina Lashko. In the past, Pelletier said after accepting her bronze medal, “it was hard for me to come back.” But last week, she put her emotions aside—determined to show the world what Annie Pelletier can do. “Because the dream,” she said, “is never over until they close the lights.” Some dreams, in fact, will live on even long after the lights go out.