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How Rio became Canada’s breakthrough Olympics

Canada set a high standard in Rio, and is emerging as a Summer Olympics power
Canada’s Andre De Grasse celebrates silver in the men’s 200m final at the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada's Andre De Grasse celebrates silver in the men's 200m final. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Canada’s Andre De Grasse celebrates silver in the men’s 200m final. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Andre De Grasse won three medals at the Rio Olympic Games, but didn’t realize his full potential. The 21-year-old phenom can go faster—much faster. It’s only been four years since he took up sprinting, and his form is still imperfect. Coaches have fixed some of his worst habits—throwing his head back, getting fully upright too early in the race. But he remains a twitch too slow out of the blocks, and often expends his energy in the wrong places. It’s an oddity of the sport that the quickest man is usually the one making the least effort.

In the 100-m race, where the Markham, Ont., native won bronze in a personal-best 9.91 seconds, De Grasse was .10 behind Usain Bolt’s gold, and .02 off Justin Gatlin’s silver. Afterwards, he and Stuart McMillan, the American who has been coaching him since December, both talked about how he should have been closer to 9.6 seconds, or even 9.5. The world record, set by Bolt in his prime in 2008, is 9.58.

De Grasse’s 200-m, where he came second to Bolt in 20.02, was slow by his own blazing standards. In the semifinal, he’d run 19.80 and set a new Canadian record as he grinned and pushed the big Jamaican legend to the line. De Grasse said his legs were maybe a little tired. His coach put it down to trying too hard on the curve, tightening up just enough to allow Bolt to pull away down the straight. “We had a strategy to try to tire out Usain [in the semifinal] and I think we did that,” said McMillan. “That’s why we’re a little bit frustrated. He was there for the taking, and we just couldn’t get it done.”

In the 4 x 100-m relay, Canada came fourth behind Jamaica, Japan and the United States, then got upgraded to bronze after the Americans were disqualified for an illegal hand-off. De Grasse’s anchor run propelled his team to another new Canadian record: 37.27. (The old one, 37.69, the gold-winning performance by Robert Esmie, Glenroy Gilbert, Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey in Atlanta, had stood for 20 years.)

Late that night, after Bolt completed his endless triple-triple gold celebration and Olympic retirement by tossing a javelin 56 m across the stadium infield, McMillan took to Twitter to deliver a message. “For those who think you have to sprint maximally to get faster—not once all year did De Grasse sprint at maximal speed,” he wrote. “Rhythm, timing, technique, coordination, fluidity, flow, etc.—all abilities that can be improved via sub-maximal sprinting.” In other words, the best is yet to come.

This is good news for Canada. But of course, there was no shortage of things to be happy about coming out of Rio. Canada’s 22-medal performance—four gold, three silver and 15 bronze—matches Atlanta in 1996 as the true national high-water mark for a Summer Games. (The 44 won at the Soviet-boycott-thinned L.A. Games in 1984 will always have an asterisk.) It was enough hardware to put Canada among the top 10 countries in overall haul. And more encouraging still is how and where they were won. Six in track and field—including a high jump gold from Derek Drouin, and bronzes from Damian Warner in decathlon and Brianne Theisen-Eaton in heptathlon. Six more in the swimming pool, led by 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak’s amazing gold, silver and two relay bronzes. A pair of bronzes in team sports: women’s soccer and rugby sevens. Two more in cycling—team sprint on the track and Catharine Pendrel’s mountain bike comeback. Another two in women’s diving, a repeat gold in trampoline from Rosie MacLennan, and a joyful top-of-the-podium finish by Erica Wiebe in women’s 75-kg wrestling. Canada was winning medals all over the place in Rio: a Winter Olympic powerhouse that is suddenly on the verge of becoming a summer nation too.

A tone was set before the Games even officially began, with Canada’s women’s soccer team, ranked 10th in the world, taking down the fifth-ranked Australians 2-0. (They would end up doing the same to third-ranked France, and splitting a pair of games versus Germany, the world’s No. 2 power, and eventual winner of Rio gold.) Then it carried over to the pool with a bronze in the women’s 4 x 100-m freestyle relay on the first finals night and never really stopped. Canada medalled for 13 straight days in Rio, and there were only two days of competition without a podium finish. In Beijing in 2008, the first medal finally arrived at the Games’ midway point, the second Saturday. In Athens in 2004, the country had but one bronze at the beginning of week two.

“We’ve had so many great performances,” said Curt Harnett, a three-time Olympic cycling medallist and Canada’s chef de mission in Rio. “And it’s not only depth, but youthfulness. It’s a young team in so many ways. Our future does look so bright that those kids better be wearing some shades.”

Evan Dunfee, of Canada, heads for the finish line in the men's 50-km race walk at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 19, 2016. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Evan Dunfee, of Canada, heads for the finish line in the men’s 50-km race walk at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 19, 2016. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

The Canadian Olympic Committee’s public prediction coming into Rio was 19 medals. Privately, it was hoping for somewhere between 20 and 24. It’s never an exact science; favourites fail at every Games. But whether through effort, momentum or luck—or more likely a combination of all three—Canadians converted almost all of their big chances. And several unheralded athletes came heart-wrenchingly close to joining the podium party. Evan Dunfee led for much of the 50-km race walk, and was in third when a bodycheck from a Japanese competitor knocked him off his stride near the finish line. (His post-race protest briefly gave Canada another bronze before it was overturned on appeal. Dunfee, to his own and his country’s credit, refused to pursue the matter further. “I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision,” he explained in a statement. “I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.”) At the pool, 21-year-old Santo Condorelli came fourth in the men’s 100-m freestyle, missing bronze by .03 seconds. And on the final night of track and field—while Brazilians were celebrating men’s soccer gold and Canada was singing and crying with the Tragically Hip—there were three more near misses; a fourth from Melissa Bishop in the 800-m, a fourth for Canada’s 4 x 400-m women’s relay team and a fourth from Mohammed Ahmed in the men’s 5,000-m.

So why is Canada finally breaking through at the Summer Games? The simplest answer is money. In the four years running up to the 2008 Beijing Games, Canada’s non-winter sports received $44.3 million in government funding. For the quadrennial leading to London 2012, the amount was increased to $106.2 million. And the total invested coming into Rio was $116.1 million. Add in the cash that flows from corporate backers including RBC, Canadian Tire and Visa, and private funds from groups like B2ten, and Canada’s athletes are being supported in an unprecedented fashion—they’re able to afford the best coaching and support, and train and travel as they need.

Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium (OTP), the body in charge of allocating most of those funds, says the model that worked so well for Vancouver 2010—a top-of-the-table finish with 14 golds, seven silvers and five bronzes—is now proving its worth in Summer Games too. It took a little longer because the competition is deeper, and the extra cash only really kicked in two years before London. But now the expectation is for Canada to sustain or better its Rio performance at the 2020 Tokyo Games and in 2024.

There are more sports in summer, and the choices about what to target are more difficult, but the guiding principle remains the same. “Wherever there is evidence of medal potential, we are providing a funding recommendation, and that’s consistent across Summer, Winter and the Paralympics,” says Merklinger. “We need to make sure that we do the most with the money available.”

Post-London, OTP and Canada’s sporting federations made a subtle shift, allocating some of the money that would traditionally have gone to high-performance programs to developing athletes instead—kids with the potential to medal in five to eight years. Some of them showed up on the podium in Rio, ahead of schedule. And now, thanks to additional funding announced by the Harper government in 2015—up to $20 million over the next four years to match private sector donations—the country is even better able to balance its Olympic present and future. “There’s lots of depth in the system,” says Merklinger. “And that investment in next-gen is really going to make sure that we don’t leave any athletes behind.”

Some other funding tweaks for the 2016 Games worked: A relatively modest investment helped qualify five teams—women’s soccer, rugby and basketball, and men’s volleyball and field hockey. Two of them won medals, and two more advanced to the final eight.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 12: Will Crothers, Tim Schrijver, Conlin McCabe and Kai Langerfeld of Canada react after competing in the Men's Four Final A on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Lagoa Stadium on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Will Crothers, Tim Schrijver, Conlin McCabe and Kai Langerfeld of Canada react after competing in the Men’s Four Final A on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Lagoa Stadium on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

A couple did not. Rowing Canada’s “small-boat strategy,” a change in focus from men’s and women’s eights with the idea that splitting up the big crews and having more athletes in more races would result in more medals, was a colossal failure. The federation delivered just one podium finish—a silver in women’s lightweight double sculls, from Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee, two holdovers from the London Games. Not much bang for the $17.4 million invested over the past four years. The equestrian team, which received just $1.17 million, won exactly as many medals; Eric Lamaze’s individual bronze.

Canada’s canoe-kayak athletes, who had medalled in five straight Olympics, return from Rio with none, despite receiving $10.4 million in government funding over the quadrennial. “It’s certainly a time for us to pause and reflect with those sports,” says Merklinger, who previously ran Canada’s paddling program. “All the partners are saying the same thing—we need to figure out what we have to do differently.”

Based on their Rio performances, track and field and swimming are likely to receive more money going forward. But there is a limit to what funds alone can accomplish. “It’s not ‘give me more money and I’ll go get more medals,’ ” says Peter Eriksson, Athletics Canada’s head coach. “I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s how you invest the money.”

Eriksson, who took over the program in 2013 after stints with Great Britain’s track and Paralympics teams, has taken a looser approach than some of his predecessors, spreading funds wider and deeper. “You have to build from the bottom up,” he says. “Making the changes we did, we got $3 million to $4 million more out the door directly to the athletes. So that makes a difference.”

After underperforming in London—Drouin’s surprise bronze in high jump was the only medal—Rio’s six podiums marks Canada’s best track and field showing since the 1932 Olympics. Eriksson sees disciplines where there’s still room to improve: distance and endurance events, and the jumps, long and high. But he cautions that Canada is unlikely to again keep pace with China and Great Britain, who had six and seven track medals, respectively, at the 2016 Games. For a country of 35 million, where track ranks well down the sporting list, Canada punched above its weight in Rio. Eriksson thinks four medals might be a more reasonable goal for the 2020 Tokyo Games. All of them gold, however. The bar has been raised, and standards will only get higher, he warns. “We have very tough rules. We’re investing in today’s performance and tomorrow’s potential, not yesterday’s.”

Canada's Taylor Ruck, left to right, Brittany MacLean, Katerine Savard and Penny Oleksiak take bronze in the women's 4 x 200m freestyle relay during the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Canada’s Taylor Ruck, left to right, Brittany MacLean, Katerine Savard and Penny Oleksiak take bronze in the women’s 4 x 200m freestyle relay during the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high-performance director, took over a program that won two medals in London and saw just seven swimmers make a final. He preached the need to improve not just times, but outcomes, pushing athletes to progress to semifinals, then finals, and the three-step podium. “Everybody can improve, no matter where you are in the world,” he says. Up-and-coming talent, like Oleksiak and her fellow 16-year-old medallist Taylor Ruck, were given a chance to compete with more established swimmers for an Olympic berth. In Rio, with one of its youngest teams ever, Canada made more than a dozen finals and won six times. Having finally tasted success, there will be a different attitude heading to Tokyo. “I like to talk about the difference between pressure and stress. I like to think that pressure is good. People can thrive under pressure,” says Atkinson. “Stress is something that can be disruptive. And preparing people to deal with the stress so it doesn’t cause disruption is something we’ll have to look at.”

While all the medals in the pool—and 16 of the country’s 22 in Brazil—were won by women, there is a sense that the gender imbalance won’t be quite so dramatic four years from now. Atkinson points to a core group of young Canadian men, including Condorelli, 21, and Javier Acevedo, who at 18 was the youngest male on the Olympic team, as potential stars in Tokyo. Own the Podium’s Merklinger notes that “strategic” funding choices for Rio—targeted investments in new sports like rugby sevens, or women’s events where the field wasn’t as deep as for the men—helped boost the medal count, making the competitive gap between the women and men look larger than it probably is.

Regardless, Canada finally found some summer confidence, perhaps even a bit of swagger, in Rio. And for the first time in decades, our athletes have come away expecting podiums rather than dreaming of them. Four years from now, with Olympic monsters like Bolt and Michael Phelps finally vanquished by age, if not by the competition, is it too much to hope that maybe a Canadian swimmer or runner might become the global superstar of the Tokyo Games?

De Grasse, at least, seems comfortable with that notion. Perfecting his game, making progress, step by step, until the world is at his feet. “I have a lot left in the tank. I think I can do some incredible things, and run some times that I never thought I could do before,” he proclaimed one night in Rio, while wrapped in a Canadian flag. “I can do it, if I just put my mind to it.”