ATHENS'04

IT'S GO TIME

JAMES DEACON August 16 2004
ATHENS'04

IT'S GO TIME

JAMES DEACON August 16 2004

IT'S GO TIME

ATHENS'04

JAMES DEACON

IN HIS DAY, Milo of Kroton was the Olympics brightest star. The hulking wrestler won five straight titles at Games between 532 and 516 BC; in the absence of 24-hour sports networks, news of his victories was distributed far and wide by carrier pidgeons. Milo’s great strength made him a legend out of competition, too. According to historical accounts, he was at a meeting where

the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras was speaking when the roof began to collapse. Hundreds might have been killed, but Milo rushed to the hall’s wobbling central pillar and held it steady until the crowd got out. Only then did he let go and run to safety himself, somehow avoiding the crushing cascade of stone.

History is a relative term in the instantreplay sports world. But the Greeks like to tell their old stories, and since they're hosting the 2004 Summer Games, you'll be hearing a lot about Mllà and Polydamas and other ancient Olympians who competed nude and slathered in olive oil. And if not for his tory, these Games wouldn't be in Athens at all. The International Olympic Committee rejected the Greek capital's bid to host the 1996 Games, the Scenes fr modern Olympics' centennial: the Olym the city had neither the requisite the ancie sports and transportation fadAthens (~ ities, nor the money to build 1896 Gan them. In 1997, when the vote for left); Pan 2004 was held, there were still Stadium, serious doubts about Athens. the 2004

But former Olympic czar Juan Antonio Samaranch argued it was time to honour the Olympics’ birthplace.

So call these the Fingers-Crossed Games. Because it took the Greeks so long getting started, and because of events outside of organizers’ control, just about everyone is nervous, hoping the Games avoid terrorist attacks, yet more positive drug tests, traffic gridlock, power outages, air-conditioning breakdowns and labour disruptions. This week, athletes from more than 200 countries are getting their first taste of the polluted, 40° C soup that is Athens in August, and wondering: what’ll happen to their bodies if they push themselves too hard? And people whose professional lives are measured in fractions of a second aren’t impressed by officials who leave everything to the last minute. If the aquatic centre never got its roof, millions of tickets are unsold, and wheel-

chair competitors are barred from the opening ceremonies, what else could go wrong?

Against the odds, not to mention worldwide perception, the Greeks have mounted a stunning comeback, to the point that Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis announced last week that “the Olympic installations and infrastructure are ready to welcome, host and serve the Olympic family.” They achieved that in spite of heightened post-9/11 terrorism fears that forced organizers to spend $1.9 billion on security, triple what it cost in Sydney. That siphoned funds and manpower away from other projects and set the Athens committee back. And for Greece, a proud but small nation, hosting the Olympics is a massive undertaking, costing an estimated $9.5 billion. That might be too massive for any country: a report commissioned by the IOC in 2002 concluded that the Games “may put their future success at risk if the size continues to increase.” Athens at least deserves a gold medal for trying.

Canada’s competitors will try, too, although effort alone doesn’t warrant gold. Winning takes that something extra. The rowing team’s men’s eight, for instance, has momentum from capturing the past two world championships and this season’s big regattas. Hurdler Perdita Felicien has cracked the aura of invulnerability of her chief rival, American Gail Devers. Diver Alexandre Despatie revels in the pressure. Gymnast Kyle Shewfelt has a vault move named after him. Olympic kayaker Caroline Brunet has the hunger from winning two silver medals at past Games—but not gold. Triathlete Simon Whitfield knows he can win because he did it in Sydney. And judoka Nicolas Gill, the opening-ceremonies flagbearer and a two-time medal-winner, has experience—he’s heading to his fourth Games.

In recent years, less has been expected of Canadian teams. Chronic underfunding stemming from mid-’90s budget cuts reduced

access to coaching, training facilities and travel to competitions—essential components of athlete development. “The amount of money we’re looking for,” says COC chief operating officer Lou Ragagnin, “is just a rounding error for some government departments.” Some programs have fallen further than others: the head swim coach, for one, publicly admits his best prospects are longshots for medals. Overall results have slumped, too. The 1996 Canadian team racked up 22 medals, including six golds, in Atlanta. In 2000, the tally fell to 14 medals and three golds

(leaving Canada lagging behind Belarus and Cuba in the final standings). That total is about what Canadian officials expect in Athens, too. What hurt the most was the loss of money for grass-roots programs. “When we took money out of that level,” says women’s rowing head coach Al Morrow, “there was an incredible drop-off in development.”

Yet there’s real promise in this team, and in the future. The diving program is stronger

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than ever, and rowing, with an abundance of talented athletes and strong coaches, has reclaimed its status among the world’s elite after an off Games in Sydney. Athletics Canada, in disarray for so long, has reorganized its management and is grooming a new generation of running and jumping stars—the men’s 4 x 100-m relay team, training under Glenroy Gilbert, could surprise some people. And Ottawa, grudgingly, has pried open its coffers a little. It’s the least the feds can do for the people wearing the Maple Leaf who are trying to make a little history in Athens. Itïï