The Girl Games

James Deacon October 9 2000

The Girl Games

James Deacon October 9 2000
Anne Montminy and Emilie Heymans didn’t have much time to train for the synchronized 10-m diving event. It was not a top priority for competitors who were medal contenders in the individual tower event at the Summer Games. But since they both live in the Montreal area, they got together for an occasional hour and made plans to resume training once the individual event was finished. It took a while to get their rhythm right, and after that it was simply a matter of standing up on the tower and going on the count of three. According to their head coach, the 25-year-old Montminy—as the veteran—counted it down to Heymans, 18. But after toweling off with a silver medal to their credit, the pair revealed that their coach was wrong. “Emilie only hears out of her left ear,” Montminy confided. “So she ran the show.”

It made sense that, for the Canadian team in Sydney, a thrown-together arrangement made out of last-minute necessity delivered such a sterling reward. Montminy, having already won bronze in the individual tower, became Canada’s first double medalist in Sydney in an event that was making its Olympic debut. In fact, Canada did splendidly in new events: Simon Whitfield won gold in the triathlon, Karen Cockburn and Mathieu Turgeon captured bronze in the women's and men's trampoline, respectively, and last week Winnipeg’s Dominique Bosshart, coming from behind in her final match, grabbed bronze in tae kwon do.

It was also fitting that, with a third-place finish in synchronized swimming—and champion kayaker Caroline Brunet scheduled to race after press time—so many of Canada's medals came from women. After all, these were the so-called Girl Games—or, as one Australian newspaper cheekily put it, The Games of the Dames. Right from the start, when opening ceremonies organizers chose to honor the centennial of female athletes competing in the Olympics, the focus has been on women. Throughout the Games, they bore the weightiest pressure and reaped the brightest worldwide spotlight for their efforts. And there were more of them: just under 40 per cent of the 11,084 athletes in Sydney were women. By 2004, Olympic officials predict, the number of women will finally reach half the athlete population, a huge increase over the 20 per cent who attended the Montreal Games in 1976.

Canada has already done its part to tip the balance. For the second straight Games, its team had more female athletes than male. “We have been leaders in making sporting opportunities available to women,” said Sue Hyland, who headed Canada's team operations in Sydney. “We have a pretty progressive country, and women have done well by it.” They have done well, period. In the pool, the eight-woman synchronized swim team dazzled fans to win bronze-medal marks with a performance that evoked images of other sports at the Summer Games—from hurdlers and high jumpers to archers and cyclists. In synchro’s most competitive Olympic final ever, the Canadians had by far the most athletic performance of the eight in the last group. “The sport has really come a long, long way even since 1996,” explained synchro-swimmer Jacinthe Taillon of St-Eustache, Que. “A lot of countries that weren’t on the map four years ago are really strong now. And it will be better in another four years.”

It wasn’t a bad week for Canadian men. There was wrestler Daniel Igali, fighting his way into the gold-medal match at the weekend. Tennis stars Daniel Nestor and Sébastien Lareau won gold in men’s doubles. And veteran canoeist Steve Giles paddled to a bronze in the 1,000-m sprint final with a blistering kick at the end. “The finish was awesome,” said an exhausted Giles. The men’s basketball team had a terrific tournament, including a stunning upset of Yugoslavia, but fell short of a medal. Competitors from other countries had memorable weeks as well—U.S. sprinters Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene winning the 400-m and 100-m finals; Kenya’s Noah Ngeny upsetting heavy favorite Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in the 1,500; Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia narrowly edging Kenya’s Paul Tergat to win what many say was the greatest 10,000-m race in history; and Russia’s hulking Alexandre Karelin, the greatest Greco-Roman heavyweight of all time, absorbing a rare and crushing defeat in the final at the hands of an American farmer.

But overall, women etched the most indelible images. Right away, there was Cathy Freeman, the Aussie Aboriginal runner, lighting the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies and carrying an inestimable burden of expectations into the 400-m final (page 51). American sprinter Marion Jones provided U.S. television with the star power it craves, and some drama as well: she ultimately fell short of her all-gold dream, capturing three golds and two bronzes, while weathering the controversy over her shot-putter husband’s positive steroid test. On TV and in the papers, there appeared the rare image of an Iranian woman I named Manijeh Kazemi, partly yet discreetly unveiled, competing in pistol shooting. And China’s Fu Mingxia, in her third Olympics though still only 23, edged closer to diving perfection by winning the three-meter springboard, giving her gold in a third straight Games. There were so many female stars that U.S. tennis headliners Venus and Serena Williams got relatively little notice for their gold-medal efforts.

Partly because of those individual stars, many women’s sports achieved near parity in Sydney. On the soccer and hockey pitches, at the track and in the pool, women's events either held their own or eclipsed the popularity of the men’s competitions. How big have these sports become? Consider: the women’s track-and-field events used to be afterthoughts for attending media. Yet at Stadium Australia last week, some middle-aged newspaper reporters were heard grousing that Games organizers should in future better arrange the schedule so that the men’s and women’s 100-m finals were not run one after the other. “There’s no way,” one writer concluded, “that we can cover two huge events back-to-back like this.”

Undeniably, some women’s sports drew attention as much for their sex appeal as for the level of competition. Canada’s highly ranked women’s water polo team sank early in its Olympic debut, but the sport was hugely popular—it’s fast, tough and easy for viewers to follow—and there is always the prospect of a torn bathing suit to bring out the gawkers. In fact, the biggest controversy about the Girl Games was over the role sex played in the selling of their sports. Some top performers got nearly as much ink for their makeup, their painted nails and their skintight outfits, and a few posed nude for pre-Games photos. But if some critics questioned deliberate attempts at attention-getting, others were more philosophical. “There’s no one way for women to think—there are many voices, many faces,” said Bryna Kopelow, chair of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport. “Women do things in different ways and we have to honour and respect this.” Take the womens pole vault. The final was scheduled on the same night at the track that Freeman and Johnson ran their respective 400s, and when Romania’s tiny Gabriela Szabo hung on to beat Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan in a brilliant 5,000-m duel. Yet on TV and on the huge screens at the stadium, the vaulters got their share of the limelight. The competition was extremely close, and it didn’t hurt that the finalists, including Iceland’s Vala Flosadottir, Australia’s Russian export Tatiana Grigorieva and the eventual winner, American Stacey Dragila, were not only great athletes but very attractive ones as well. The blond-haired, wild-eyed Grigorieva had turned up in an Australian magazine without her track suit. But that didn’t appear to bother her competitors. If people want to tune in to the pole vault to watch “hot chicks,” Dragila said afterward, then so be it.

Gains in popularity and endorsement opportunities may not be enough to keep some Canadian veterans in competition. Brunet, who has kept a punishing training schedule for years, is plain worn out. Three-time world champion rower Emma Robinson is heading for medical school. And Montminy has been called to the bar and is weighing an offer to article with a Montreal firm. But Montminy says work is the last thing on her mind, and she is considering studying for a masters degree at the University of California at Berkeley. “I don’t even know if I want to be a lawyer,” she told Maclean's. “I just want to spend a year being a student, because I haven’t been able to do that properly. And I want to do some partying, hang out, go somewhere where it’s warm for a while.”

Still, retirement from sports is hard to do, even for Montminy. There was that moment in the 10-m final when, with a couple of solid dives, she could have overtaken the American and two Chinese, and grabbed the title of Olympic champion. “It was right there,” Montminy said, holding two fingers millimeters apart. That has left her with a competitive itch that can only be scratched in Athens in 2004. “Those were two dives I can do better in my sleep,” she groaned. “Come back? Sure, definitely, that’s still in my mind. Very much.”

For Canadian athletes, perhaps the best result in Sydney is the pressure that a disappointing performance has brought to the debate over sport funding. There is a school of thought that federal cutbacks to an already stretched sports budget have stripped sport federations of their ability to field competitive teams and athletes. Another positive result here is that the success of Canada’s female athletes is already attracting girls to sports. In Calgary, 12-year-old Ashley Andersen says she has always played soccer, basketball and volleyball at school. But now she has a new ambition. “Seeing Anne dive,” she says of Montminy, “makes me feel like I want to do that, too.” In today’s sports world, she’ll have a pretty good chance to fulfill that dream.

The Canucks who knocked ‘the Woodies’

“How did it happen?” the Australian TV host asked. Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge—renowned Down Under as “the Woodies”—were being grilled on how they managed to lose their final match as the world’s most successful tennis doubles team. And how, the host went on, could they let it go to “a couple of no-name Canadians”?

The “no-names” in question—actually Daniel Nestor of Toronto and Sébastien Lareau of Montreal—whipped the legendary Woodies soundly to win gold, Canada's first-ever Olympic medal in tennis. And to do it on the Australian duo’s home court, amid inevitable choruses of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” made the victory even sweeter. “It’s nice to send them off with a loss,” said Nestor, “especially in front of their home crowd, and especially the way we did it.”

The way they did it was convincing. After a shaky opening set, the Canadians took three straight to win. Nestor dominated, especially with a booming serve that hit 194 km/h during a match that ground on for two hours and 43 minutes. Woodforde and Woodbridge, with an unparalleled doubles record of 61 world titles over a decade together, had to settle for silver. It was their last match: at 35, Woodforde is retiring from tennis.

Sadly for Canadian tennis, though, the Nestor-Lareau partnership is unlikely to be lasting. Both Nestor, 28, and Lareau, 27, dumped other doubles partners about a year ago to play with each other. Lareau asked Nestor to team up during a tournament in Shanghai. “I was a little surprised,” Nestor recalled, “but when I thought about it, it made sense.” Nestor is a left-hander with the bigger serve; Lareau is a rightie who is stronger at the net. “We don’t really have any weaknesses,” Nestor said. But despite their Sydney success, both said they will focus on their singles game and team up only for key matches, including next year’s grand slams.

The victory was special for Nestor, too, because it marked his comeback from delicate surgery on his left shoulder. “I know a lot of players who never really recover from that, who can never hit as hard as they did,” he said. “I was worried.” But he started playing again in May—and showed last week he is as good as ever. As for Lareau, winning gold for his country was “the highlight of my career, a magic moment.”—Andrew Phillips in Sydney