Struggling through tough times, Canadian athletes look for answers
It was the kind of night organizers must have dreamed of back when the world athletics championships were still in the planning stages. Under a pale blue prairie sky, with the sun warming spectators in the east-side stands at Commonwealth Stadium well into the evening, there was a little magic on the field. The mighty German, Lars Riedel, won his fifth world title over the strongest final group of discus throwers ever. Then Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, perhaps the greatest distance runner in history, narrowly lost a bid for his fifth world championship when he was overtaken in the home stretch of the 10,000 m by Kenyan Charles Kamathi. A crowd of some 40,000, including pockets of Ethiopians and Kenyans, urged the runners around every one of the 25 laps, and stood cheering long after the thrilling, down-to-the-wire conclusion.
The gods were generally kind to Edmonton. There were no major organizational screwups. They had chamber of commerce weather, and edge-of-the-seat excitement from the best athletes from more than 200 countries for 10 straight days. There was juicy intrigue involving positive drug tests on unnamed competitors, and some high drama, too. Gabriela Szabo of Romania, the diminutive diva of middle-distance running, engaged in a nasty feud with fellow Romanian Szekely Violeta, her chief rival in the 1,500 m. And she threatened to boycott the 5,000 m because Olga Yegorova of Russia had tested positive at an earlier meet for EPO, a drug used to boost endurance, but was reinstated through a loophole. When Yegorova ran her first heat, two British athletes held up a sign reading “EPO cheats out” until security officers asked them to take it down. Great stuff.
A few visitors were not so kind. Robert Philip of Londons Daily Telegraph called the city “Deadmonton” and poked fun at the Alberta capital’s self-proclaimed moniker, City of Champions. Thinskinned civic boosters and some local media turned Philip into public enemy No. 1, just ahead of Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones, who criticized the theatrical component of the opening ceremonies. Residents just laughed it all off. “Who cares?” mechanic Ron Strobel said before taking his seat one night. “You see all these people from all different places,” he added, waving an arm towards the fans in his section, “and they’re all cheering like crazy for their athletes. They’re having fun, and that’s what this is all about.”
There was more thoughtful criticism from The Times of London, among others, about the decision by the IAAF, the sport’s governing body, to award the championships to a smallish city with not nearly enough track-and-field fans to fill the 60,000-seat stadium. The average attendance was nearly 40,000 per day, but that left at least 20,000 empty seats staring out at folks watching on TV. Defending the decision at a mid-event press conference, Istvan Gyulai, general secretary of the IAAF, said the organization wanted to build a North American audience to complement the event’s huge popularity in Europe. “There is no problem, no thought that the IAAF is dissatisfied” with the results in Edmonton, Gyulai said, adding: “Never before have the world championships been prepared and managed better.”
The most savage indictment, though, was saved for the Canadian team, and it was partly self-inflicted. Its only brandname stars, aging sprinters Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey, were injured and failed to make the finals. Up-and-comers fell short, too, leaving organizers with no homegrown hero to promote. If anything, there was the opposite: sprinter Venolyn Clarke of Oshawa, Ont., was the first athlete expelled from the championships after testing positive for the banned steroid stanazolol. So the euphoria that usually accompanies 10 days of remarkable sport was soured by domestic disappointment. High jumper Mark Boswell of Brampton, Ont., who was second at the 1999 worlds, walked disconsolately off the field after finishing out of the medals in Edmonton. With a Canadian flag earring in his left lobe, he shrugged at the obvious question. “Everyone aims to be on the podium,” he told reporters, “so, yeah, I’m disappointed.”
It isn’t a new sensation for Canadians. Bailey’s 100-m triumph and the relay team’s 4 x 100 gold medal at the 1996 Olympics is long-gone history. Canada’s track-and-field contingent left the Summer Games in Sydney last fall without a medal; same result at the world indoor championships in Lisbon last March. And it isn’t about to change soon. Bailey and Surin are about to retire, and it was plain in Edmonton that the next generation of Canadian stars is still very young. Facing the expectations of the home crowd, Boswell, 24, finished seventh in the high jump; Jason Tunks, 26, was ninth in the discus.
In the gloom, though, there is a promise of better times ahead. Deficit-reducing cutbacks by the federal Liberals in the early 1990s gutted Canada’s already meagre sport system, so the high-profile blowout in Edmonton bolsters the argument that the system needs to be rebuilt on better footing. To some extent, that process is already under way. Athletics Canada has been reorganized, and Ottawa has committed more money to athletes, programs and facilities. And secretary of state for amateur sport Denis Coderre is drafting a new national sport vision. Part of that plan focuses on the hardware: the facilities built for the worlds, for instance, will be converted into a national team training centre, and Coderre hopes to establish similar centres in Sherbrooke, Que., and in Atlantic Canada. “In the past,” Coderre said of the old sport system, “the left hand never knew what the right was doing. So you have to give a lot of credit to what the athletes did on their own.”
It won’t be a quick fix. With still-limited funds, Coderre and the various sport federations have to improve high-performance training for a small number of elite athletes without shortchanging kids’ participation and grassroots initiatives. But while there are differing views on how to balance that tightrope act, there is universal relief that something is finally being done. “We have turned the ship around,” head coach Les Gramantik said last week. “We just need the fuel to get going again.” That may be too late for some team members. Children of the cutbacks, they made it on raw talent more than training, and there is still too little support for coaching and travel to competitions. For athletes, says high jumper Wanita May of Grimsby, Ont., it usually comes down to money. “It always seems we’re complaining,” the 26-year-old says. “But the fact is, this is my fifth competition this season. If I’d been jumping for Great Britain, I’d have been to 15 or 20 meets, and I’d have jumped a lot higher. The more you compete, the better you get.”
That said, the young guns did not make excuses. The hulking Tunks, ranked fourth in the discus world, has a face given more to a big smile than a frown, but he could not mask his upset after failing to make the finals in Edmonton. It hurt, and he was scathing in self-reproach, saying he “choked.” Instead of focusing, he said, he was too aware of the home crowd, and of his buddy Boswell jumping at the other end of the stadium. “I was hoping I could do something special for the country,” he said. “I didn’t.” Like others, though, Tunks could see some light at the end of Canada’s dark tunnel. “We’re young, we have a lot of time and a lot of talent,” he said confidendy. “We’ll get there.” El
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.