OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Upsets Down Under

Canadians won a handful of medals, but the team’s disappointments made it clear the country needs a better-financed sport system

James Deacon October 2 2000
OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Upsets Down Under

Canadians won a handful of medals, but the team’s disappointments made it clear the country needs a better-financed sport system

James Deacon October 2 2000


It was a toss-away comment, uttered in the heat of the moment, but it hit the mark. Sprinter Bruny Surin had just run an inexplicably slow first heat in the men’s 100 meters on the track at Stadium Australia. His 10.41 seconds left him in fourth place in the heat, and only the top three finishers were guaranteed advancement to the next round. There was a buzz in the stadium—the 1999 silver medalist at the world championships was in danger of not making the second of four 100-m stages. As it turned out, he did progress, edging out another runner for the last place in the field by a microscopic four one-thousandths of a second. Surin didn’t know that when he crossed the finish line, though—he assumed he’d blown a shot at Olympic glory. Visibly upset when he left the track, he waved off reporters on his way to the athletes’ change room. But as he passed the Canadian press corps’ thicket of outstretched microphones and tape recorders, he couldn’t help himself. “Not good,” he barked. “Not good at all.”

Good thing misery loves company. In a tough week for Canada at the Summer Games, Surin’s angry reproach, though directed at his own performance, could have applied to the results of any number of his high-ranked teammates. Every country has athletes who fall short of pre-Games hopes—Australia’s “Madame Butterfly,” Susie O’Neill, didn’t win her specialty, Romania beat favored Russia for the first time in the gymnastics team competition. But Canada's disappointment was something else. Medal favorite Carol Montgomery crashed in the cycling portion of the triathlon. Defending Olympic 100-m champion Donovan Bailey was knocked out by a virus, and Surin succumbed to a hamstring pull. Marianne Limpert and Joanne Malar swam career-best times, but not fast enough to win medals. Three-time world champion Alison Sydor finished fifth in mountain biking, and Tanya Dubnicoff settled for seventh on the cycling track. The women's water-polo team saw their medal hopes sink, and rower Derek Porter came up a fraction of a second short of bronze. When the tears dried, there was Canada, one week into the Games, with just six medals—and not happy about it.

Canada’s Olympians sent home a message from the Summer Games last week, and the message is this: they can no longer be expected to compete on the world stage. It’s not that they are physically incapable. Gold-medal-winning triathlete Simon Whitfield, silver-medalist Nicolas Gill in judo, and bronze-winners Karen Cockburn and Mathieu Turgeon in trampoline, Curtis Myden in swimming and the gutsy women’s rowing eight all testify to the talent in Canada. And there are great hopes this week for paddlers Caroline Brunet and Karen Furneaux, wrestler Daniel Igali and gymnast Alexander Jeltkov, among others.

The problem for Canada's contingent is that physical ability is only part of the gold-medal equation. The great impediment to the athletes’ ability to compete is money. Without a better-organized, better-financed sport system, they have little hope of keeping up with the rest of the world. National sport federations in the United States, France, Britain, the Netherlands and Australia, among others, outspend Canada by wide margins. Those countries’ athletes get more training time, more full-time coaching, the latest in facilities, bigger travel budgets, greater access to sports psychologists and physiotherapists—whatever helps their performance. By comparison, in the last 10 years, Canadian competitors saw their already modest support programs slashed by Ottawa’s deficit-fighting efforts in the 1990s. As a result, Canadians can no longer expect this team to reap the same number of medals as past teams. “We had those big cuts,” said Al Morrow, the women’s head rowing coach, “and things like that come back to haunt you.”

Despite Montgomery’s woes on the very first day, the Canadians started well. Whitfield swam, cycled and ran to a stunning upset in the men’s triathlon on Day 2, and when swimmer Myden, from Calgary, won bronze the next night in the 1400-m individual medley, all seemed well. But then hopes began to drown in the pool and on the rowing course. Myden didn’t even qualify for the final of the 200-m IM, an event in which he won bronze in 1996. Limpert of Fredericton, silver-medalist in the 200-m IM in Atlanta, swam a personal best in the final here, yet finished just off the podium. Swimmer Malar of Hamilton recorded some career-best times only to place seventh and fifth in the 400- and 200-m medleys.

At the regatta center in Penrith, to the west of Sydney, the gloom began to set in immediately after reigning world pairs champions Emma Robinson and Theresa Luke finished third in their preliminary heat and had to qualify for the final through a repechage. Suddenly rowing, Canada's go-to sport in 1992 and 1996, looked shaky. It was: after a week of hard racing, only three of nine Canadian entries—Luke and Robinson, single-sculler Porter and the women's eight—advanced to the medal finals. And only the women's eight finished better than fourth, leaving the team with one medal after winning six at the 1996 Olympic regatta. Robinson and Luke, part of that eights team, were plainly unhappy with their earlier result. “I feel disappointed,” Robinson said, “that I didn’t take the steps that other crews took to get quicker this year.” But asked what, in fact, the other crews were doing, Luke said: “Who knows? They don’t tell us.”

The mighty fell on the track, too. Trying to compete despite a vicious flu bug, Bailey simply ran out of gas. He met with reporters after the heat, but looked sick and was visibly upset that his competition never really got started. “It’s my last time to be going to the Olympics,” he said grimly. “I guess I’ll have to reflect on that.” Surin, meanwhile, aggravated a recent hamstring pull in the first heat, but continued to run because it might be his last Games, too. “I went for it,” the Montrealer said. “I didn’t want any regrets.”

Some critics suggest Canada’s athletes under-performed because they didn’t have the win-at-all-costs determination to reach the heights, or they were too happy just to be there. That thesis, however, ignores the fact that many competitors turned in personal bests or set national and Commonwealth records. There is no doubting Sydor’s determination to win, and no one who saw Porter or Limpert after their respective fourth-place finishes could reasonably suggest they were just happy to be there. Pour years of training, diet-watching and penny-pinching on an athlete’s income just to get one step short of the goal? “It really sucks,” Limpert muttered when asked to sum up her feelings about being nipped for bronze in the 200-m IM by a mere 12 one-hundredths of a second. Porter, voice cracking, saw from the results sheet that he’d rowed a great race. That was no consolation. “fourth is a tough place to be,” he said. “Really tough.” www.macleans.ca for links

The team’s biggest official cheerleader, Denis Coderre, the energetic secretary of state for sport, said he knew from talking to athletes, coaches and administrators that a decline in team performance was inevitable. Sitting in his hotel lobby last week in full red-and-white team regalia, Coderre promised that help is on the way. Prom his meetings with all parties, he has catalogued horror stories about the largely uncoordinated athlete-development system in Canada. To effect repairs, he is hosting a federal conference on sport next February. From that, he hopes a more efficient and unified sport system, supported by new legislation, will emerge.

Earlier this year, Coderre boosted the monthly stipends paid to carded amateur athletes and handed out an additional $3 million to woefully underfunded coaches. But he knows those new commitments still don’t restore what was taken away in the 1990s, let alone cover cost-of-living increases in the last 10 years. And he couldn’t help but see the connection between Australia’s remarkable medal haul and its vastly superior financial commitment to sport. Canada—a nation of 31 million—spends $62 million a year to fund everything from kids’ soccer to elite Olympians, while Australia—a nation of 19 million—hands out an estimated $280 million. Coderre would not say if Ottawa was prepared to ante up again, but he did promise the athletes that things would get better—and soon. “Win or not, those kids are great ambassadors for our country,” he said. “So medals or not, I am going to be there for them.”

His constituents will be watching. Its not so much that athletes and coaches want more money in their pockets. They want a system that will give them the same chance to win at international competitions as their peers have. “Were not on a level playing field with the rest of the world, especially Australia,” says Malar, a three-time Olympian. “It’s not Canada’s No.1 concern, but if you expect gold medals, you’ve got to back it up with money.” Canadian Olympic Association president Bill Warren agrees. “I think we have to ask ourselves whether we have a priority for amateur sport, and if we do, then we have to do more for it,” Warren told Maclean's. “And if we don’t have a priority for amateur sport, we’re going to have to be content with results that are disappointing.”

One controversial proposal would see Sport Canada offer cash incentives to athletes who won medals. Italy does it and has seen its medal count rise. Australia rewards medalists, too. Coderre is dubious, saying he does not want to institute anything that might increase the incentive for team members to take performance-enhancing drugs. But Canadian swim coach Dave Johnson says he has seen the impact incentives have had on the performance of other teams. He also sees the value in offering a reason for veteran athletes to stay in their sports, which in turn is a boon to younger competitors. “If we can keep some of those great swimmers in the program,” Johnson said after morning heats at the Aquatic Center, “then we can create all sorts of positive downstream effects that benefit the whole system.”

That just might convince Limpert, for one, to carry on. Though sad to leave the pool without a medal, the 27-year old still had a solid meet. Sitting in the sunshine after a morning workout, she said she would consider staying for another couple of years—but only under certain conditions. “Obviously, I’d do it only if I was still enjoying swimming,” she says. “And I want to feel like I am still getting better, and that I still have a chance to win.” Then, as an afterthought, she adds: “Without drugs.” That comment said volumes. With 17 world records falling in one meet, there were inevitably poolside whispers about how certain swimmers were suddenly turning in record times.

The week’s disappointment was mitigated by top performances by newcomers in new sports as well as by Olympic vets. Gill, the Montrealer who captured bronze in judo in 1992, understood the importance of his silver-medal finish on a downhearted team. “You can’t think too much about it because you have to focus on your own event,” he explained. “But of course, I knew it would be nice if there were more Canadians winning medals.” In trampoline, making its Olympic debut, the medals for Cockburn and Turgeon also gave their country’s spirit a bounce. In fact, Turgeon, a York University student who trains with—and dates—Cockburn, said her bronze is what inspired him to his surprise medal. “I did my best routine,” he said. “This is way more than I could ever imagine.”

Other Canadians—Brunet, Igali and company—are all strong contenders this week. And there are always dark horses coming through. If Surin and Bailey get healthy, then the Canadians might just defend their Olympic 4x100-m sprint relay tide. Of course, that is a big “if.” “I tell you right now,” Surin said after dropping out of the 100, “the way I feel, it will take a miracle for me to be able to run the relay.” Given everything that happened last week, even a small miracle would be welcome.


The spending gap in sports


CANADA

Population: 31 million

National sports centers: 7

Total budget: $3.4 million

Total government spending on Olympic sports: $62 million

Carded athletes monthly allowance: $1,100

Olympic medals (Atlanta)

Gold: 3

Silver: 11

Bronze: 8

Total: 22

Olympic medals (Sydney, at the weekend)

Gold: 1

Silver: 1

Bronze: 4

Total: 6

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AUSTRALIA

Population: 19 million

National sports centers: 8

Total budget: $53.4 million

Total government spending on Olympic sports: $280 million

Carded athletes monthly allowance: $1,685 to $2,020

Medal reward scheme:

Gold: $12,125

Silver: $6,065

Bronze: $4,045

(no such program exists in Canada)

Olympic medals (Atlanta) Gold Silver Bronze

Gold: 9

Silver: 9

Bronze: 23

Total: 41

Olympic medals (Sydney, at the weekend)

Gold: 10

Silver: 18

Bronze: 11

Total: 39