Taking up the torch: why Canadians should celebrate London’s successes

Turning a Winter nation into a Summer nation isn’t a short-term project.
Canada’s Jennifer Abel performs a dive during the women’s 3m springboard final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 5, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (BRITAIN - Tags: OLYMPICS SPORT DIVING)
Taking up the torch
Tim Wimborne/ReutersReuters

In the quiet moment before his race began, Adam van Koeverden reached down to the hull of his kayak and used his finger to trace out the name: Simon Whitfield. His friend and long-time inspiration—Canada’s flag-bearer at London 2012—had wiped out on his bike on the triathlon course the day before, breaking his collarbone and ending his dream of a third Olympic medal to go along with the gold he collected a dozen years ago in Sydney and the silver from the last go around in Beijing. Watching it all unfold on TV, the man they call Van Kayak had cried. But now, early in the morning on the waters of Eton Dorney, he was determined to do something about it. As Whitfield had done four years before when he scrawled the name of gold-medal-winning rower Adam Kreek on his handlebar tape on the way to his own silver medal, he would take up the torch.

Heading out fast, as is his custom, van Koeverden led for most of the final of the men’s 1,000-m race. It was only over the last quarter that another friend, Eirik Veras Larsen of Norway, caught up and edged by. The difference between the top two steps of the podium was just over seven seconds. But for once, the intense 30-year-old Oakville, Ont., paddler wasn’t that gutted by second place.“This one is for the Whitfield legacy,” he said, looking down at the silver medal hanging around his neck and smiling. He had paid it forward.

Coping with the pressure on a global stage, and the weight of national expectations, is no small thing. The Olympic fields of play are littered with medal favourites who fall agonizingly short of the podium, or sometimes altogether fail to show up when it counts the most. Heartbreak that is multiplied by the four long years the athletes must wait for a second chance.

And van Koeverden knows better than most. After a dream Olympic debut in Athens, earning gold in the men’s single 500-m, and a bronze in the 1,000-m race, he was viewed as a lock for one, if not two, top-of-podium finishes in Beijing. After all, he had barely lost a race all season. But when the gun went off for the 1,000-m in China, he simply didn’t have it, finishing a career-worst eighth. On the dock, he had cried and apologized to all Canadians. A gutsy silver in the 500-m allowed him to leave his second Games with his head held high. But it was an awfully painful lesson about just how tough it is to be the best in the world. “I’m the same guy I was in 2004. I still want to win just as bad,” he said in London. “But I’ve just got a little more perspective on winning and the fact that you can’t do it all the time.”

It’s a sentiment that Canadians might want to keep in mind when they try to take the measure of their country’s accomplishments at the 2012 Summer Games. The not-too-hot/not-too-gold score line—18 medals, the same as in Beijing, but 12 of them bronze, five silver and just one Olympic gold, Rosie MacLennan in women’s trampoline—will inspire a lot of hand-wringing. Especially given Canada’s 13th place finish by total medals—one step up from Hungary, but below the Canadian Olympic Committee’s declared top-12 goal. But turning a winter nation into a summer one is a long-term project. And there are ample reasons to celebrate London’s successes.

THERE WAS a sense from the lighting of the cauldron that these Games would be different—that Canada would be better. Four years ago in Beijing, the country had endured a seven-day medal drought before wrestler Carol Huynh snapped up a gold, relieving an attack of national angst and launching her teammates on a nine-day, 18-medal binge. The team started just as slowly in Athens in 2004—Canada won just a single bronze in the first seven days, triggering a predictable panic back home before Canadians began making regular podium appearances, finishing with a respectable 14 medals.

This time fans had barely caught their collective breath from Danny Boyle’s extravaganza of an opening ceremony when the first medal rolled in: a bronze from diving duo Émilie Heymans and Jennifer Abel in 3-m synchro. “I hope it inspires the other athletes to do their best over the next two weeks,” Heymans enthused, with what seemed like well-placed optimism. Two days later, divers Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion reached the podium in 10-m platform, winning one of three bronzes that day for Canada. Team Canada was moving at a respectable medal-per-day clip, finishing the first week with two silvers and five bronzes, followed up the next day by MacLennan’s gold in women’s trampoline.

It was possible under the circumstances to overlook unhappy themes. Yes, the country was amassing enough bronze to forge a statue of Clara Hughes. But its athletes had been in on some agonizingly close finishes. And most fans seemed to share the view neatly articulated a few weeks before the Games by the Canadian shot putter, Dylan Armstrong: “A medal’s a medal.”

Still, with each passing day, it became harder to ignore the growing number of presumptive medallists who were falling short—Armstrong chief among them. No track and field athlete was promoted as heavily in the run-up to the Games as the affable, 306-lb. giant from Kamloops, B.C. The 31-year-old had been Diamond League champion in his event in 2011, and counted among the privileged few to receive money from Own the Podium, the government-private partnership that funnels cash toward athletes expected to win, place or show. He was sponsored by Nike, and graced the “athletes-to-watch” of practically every media outlet in Canada. But when the time came for him to heave his 7.26-kg ball, Armstrong was unable to elevate his game. “I guess I’m happy with fifth,” he said afterwards. “Obviously it would have been nice to get on the podium, but it’s a super-strong field.”

Abel, the diver, reprised this curiously light response two days later, after placing sixth in the 3-m individual springboard. Many felt the podium was within the 20-year-old Montrealer’s reach, and it seemed odd that the middling result satisfied her. Besides which, where was this new, lean Canadian Olympic machine? Why weren’t we schooling the world in our chosen sports? The disappointments piled higher. Karen Cockburn, a three-time Olympic medallist in trampoline, finished fourth (even though the eventual bronze medallist, He Wenna of China, fell during her landing). David Calder and Scott Frandsen, the 2008 medallists in pairs rowing, finished dead last in their final. Catharine Pendrel, touted as a potential gold medallist in mountain biking, wound up ninth. “I felt so comfortable yesterday, and today I just didn’t have it,” she said.

If fans and the media gave the team a pass, it was because inspiring stories chased away the gloom. Take the unexpected and unusual medal won by Derek Drouin: it had been 36 years since Canada had made the podium in high jump; those old enough to remember Greg Joy grabbing silver in Montreal must have laughed at the reappearance of knee-high socks in London. So when a wide-eyed 22-year-old from Corunna, Ont., fought his way to the final, few credited him with medal potential. Then, through quintessentially wet English weather, Drouin leapt on pace with five jumpers who separated themselves from the rest of the pack. It was not a great night for high jump: the gold-medal performance of Russia’s Ivan Ukhov fell well short of the world record. But when it was over, Drouin found himself in a three-way tie for bronze with athletes from Britain and Qatar, appended to one of the strangest victory laps in memory. “You see people doing them all the time,” he grinned, still draped in a Canadian flag signed by the residents of his hometown near Sarnia. “To be part of one is pretty awesome.”

More poignant still: Mark Oldershaw’s bronze in the men’s single 1,000-m canoe race. The 29-year-old from Burlington, Ont., is a third-generation Olympian—his grandfather Bert paddled in three Games starting in London in 1948, and was followed by three sons, including Mark’s dad, Scott, in Los Angeles in 1984. Mark is the first, however, to win a medal. “To finally get the Oldershaw name on the Olympic podium, I’m really proud of it,” he said as his father, now his coach, stood by beaming. As a good-luck charm, they’d brought along Bert’s first Olympic paddle, which for years Mark has hung on his bedroom wall as an inspiration.

All of which makes Canada’s performance in London hard to read. Is the team regressing, padding its medal column with bronze? Or is it holding its own in an increasingly competitive world? The answers matter to organizations, public and private, that have channelled increasing amounts of money to the cause. Own the Podium lavished more than $96 million on Team Canada in the four years leading up to London, more than double the amount spent before Beijing. The cash helped get Canada the same number of medals in about as many sports (the country medalled in 11 sports here, compared to 10 in Beijing). The organization, along with the COC, will now calculate the so-called “conversion rate”—the percentage of athletes with top-five finishes in world championships the previous year who went on to win medals in London. At least 13 of those who made the podium fit that description; the number who do and missed was not yet available at press time.

But the plain fact is that Summer Games are harder: there are more than twice as many countries (204 sent athletes to London, compared to 82 in Vancouver), many of which take their summer sports as seriously as Canada takes hockey or curling. We might steal a medal here or there in swimming, diving and track, but China’s six medals in table tennis are under no immediate threat from the Great White North.

And by the end of the Games, it was clear the team has clearly fallen victim to elevated expectations. After Canada’s historic success at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, it seemed reasonable to assume we could raise the bar in London through similar funding and training models. So Canadians tuned in to these Olympics in record numbers: Canada’s Olympic Media Broadcast Consortium’s daytime coverage averaged 3.6 million viewers, while some 10.7 million looked in on the women’s soccer team’s semifinal loss last week against the United States. If some of them felt let down when the medal totals flashed across their screens, they can rest assured: their disappointment is nothing compared to that of the athletes who thought they had a shot at the podium, but somehow failed to make it.

The sight of Edmonton’s Paula Findlay—a strong medal contender in women’s triathlon until injury robbed her of months of training time—struggling towards the finish line, tears dripping from her sunglasses, face contorted in anguish, melted the hardest heart. Catharine Pendrel simply seemed lost at the end of a mountain bike race where she placed ninth, instead of her accustomed top spot on the podium. “Girls just kept passing, and passing and passing me. I don’t know why,” she said. “You ride your bike six days a week and you know what’s normal, what’s not. I’ve never gone backwards in a race like that. I’m usually the one attacking.”

But the cruellest blow was surely the one dealt to Canada’s 4 x 100-m men’s sprint relay team. Overlooked and underappreciated, Gavin Smellie, Oluseyi Smith, Jared Connaughton and Justyn Warner had said repeatedly that they were among the fastest in the world, but few believed them. Yet on the final Saturday night of the Games, there they were, lined up next to Jamaica by virtue of the third-fastest time in qualifying. The gold was always out of reach—with the planet’s two fastest men, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, the Jamaicans set a new world record, blazing around the track in 36.84 seconds. And the stacked American team, which included Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, wasn’t that far behind for silver. Yet it was Canadians who crossed the line third in 38.07 seconds, comfortably ahead of the teams for Trinidad and Tobago and France.

Seeing their medal finish confirmed on the Olympic stadium scoreboard, the relay team began a victory lap draped in Canadian flags, stopping to exchange hugs and kisses with friends and family, and soaking up the applause of the 80,000 assembled fans. It was only a couple of minutes later that the letters “DQ” went up beside Canada’s name. As it turned out, Connaughton had stepped on the lane line as he powered around the final bend—an automatic disqualification. “I take full responsibility,” said the 27-year-old P.E.I. native, his face set like stone. “I am captain of this team and these guys are like my little brothers. We ran a great relay. We’re one of the best teams in the world and one misstep took it all away.” Warner, the 25-year-old Torontonian who had pulled the Canadians on to the podium with his anchor leg, gave his post-race interviews doubled-over in tears. “It sucks. It sucks to see the DQ. After we put everything into it,” he sobbed. “That’s the worst way to lose. That’s the worst way to lose a medal.”

There are no easy medals, but some seem harder than others. Perhaps it speaks to the underdog nature of the Canadian ethos that some of the most memorable moments came from those who stared down adversity and forged something fine and strong from a refusal to surrender to bad luck and trouble. For that reason the choice of soccer captain Christine Sinclair to carry Canada’s flag in the closing ceremonies was heralded as an inspired touch. To celebrate a bronze medallist might seem to set the bar low, but the honour speaks to her brilliant performance, a tournament-leading six goals, the leadership role she has grown into, and the resilience of a team that rebounded after a gutting 4-3 loss to the Americans in a bitterly contested semifinal.

That game showcased some of the best women’s soccer in memory, and, from a Canadian point of view, the worst in refereeing. Certainly Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen’s pedantic penalty calls late in the game gave the Americans an opening to storm back with a tying goal—the winner in the final minute of extra time. America would go on to win the gold-medal round against Japan, while the Canadians were relegated to a bronze-medal match against France, with three days to recoup and refocus.

It was not their best game; the team was “absolutely gassed” after their semifinal loss, as Sinclair would later admit. But with luck and pluck they held off the hard-charging French. It fell to midfielder Diana Matheson, playing aggressively far forward, to score the winner in the dying seconds. “This was an entire team effort,” Sinclair said of one of the beautiful bronzes that seemed to float higher than third-tier on the podium.

There were signs of hope in the water too. At the men’s 10-km marathon swim in Hyde Park’s Serpentine (usually the home of ducks, swans and the odd punter), Richard Weinberger, a 22-year-old University of Victoria student, set the pace for much of the race, ultimately settling for a bronze in his first Olympics. “I love you, Mom!,” he shouted out from the podium, where his expression alternated between bewilderment and glee.

Weinberger was so excited at the prospect of the big race—“like Christmas morning,” he described it—that he had hardly slept the night before, instead whiling away his time watching stupid cat videos on the Internet. Yet he seemed among the freshest when he exited the murky water. Maybe it was the workload that his coach Ron Jacks had imposed since he took up distance swimming just three years ago. Eighty to 100 km in the university pool each week. Eight to 10 km in the morning, then eight to 10 more in the evening, which works out to 320 to 400 laps of the pool everyday. “I think Richard has the ability to be the best in the world,” said Jacks. “He can go that intermediate pace better than anyone and with less effort, which means he has something in the tank for the back end.”

Still, Weinberger had never even hit the podium on the international circuit until a first-place finish a year ago at the test event in London when Thomas Lurz of Germany, who would finish in front of him for silver, lent him a drag-reducing full-body swimsuit. Since then, he’s rarely missed it. “Success is a habit. I just got in a groove,” Weinberger shrugs. He’s clearly not taking the victories for granted. Hours after receiving his medal he showed up for a press conference barefoot and still wearing his swimsuit beneath his skinny jeans. He hadn’t thought to bring a change of clothes to the lake.

But now that he has had a taste of Olympic glory, he’s committed to working all the harder. The first priority is to bulk up his still boyish frame and get “my old-man strength,” as he calls it. “I want to be the Olympic gold medallist in Rio,” Weinberger declares with a smile. A reachable goal, from the looks of it.

Pierre Lafontaine, the always upbeat CEO of Swimming Canada, points toward the incremental improvements. In Athens, no Canadians medalled and only three even made a top-eight final. Four years ago in Beijing, Ryan Cochrane took a bronze, but there were 10 final appearances. This time in London, the medal count edged up to three, while there were seven finals, and three more ninth-place finishes. “It says the program is moving in the right direction, that the work we keep pressing on our coaches and volunteers is paying off,” says Lafontaine. “And the power of these medals is what they are going to do from now on. That’s what’s exciting to me.”

The future is promising—Canada’s junior swim team ranked second at last year’s world championships. But it’s going to take a far more concerted effort to get the country back among the top swimming nations. “When an instructor sees a kid with a little bit of talent they need to pass them on to the local swim club,” says Lafontaine. And somebody has to come up with the money to make it all happen at home. Last year, there were 134 Canadians swimming on scholarships at U.S. colleges. “If I could keep just 25 per cent of them, it would be great,” he says.

There is a thin margin between winning and what is perceived as failure. It is measured in 100ths and even 1,000ths of a second. It is measured in the straying of a foot outside the lane of a track or points on a board. On Saturday night, American David Boudia finished a joyous first in 10-m platform diving with a judged score of 568.65. Britain’s Tom Daley finished third with 556.95, and jumped for joy into the pool with his support team. In second, just two points behind gold, was China’s Qiu Bo, who buried his face in anger and shame. It was a reaction by Chinese athletes that wasn’t unfamiliar at these and other games, a near robotic response to gold as their due, and horror at anything less. Down the leaderboard in 11th was Victoria’s Riley McCormick, 20 years old and full of promise, delighting in the achievement of making an Olympic final and acquitting himself well. Isn’t that what we hope and expect of our children when we first introduce them to sport?

Yes, Canada had just one win at these Games, and the bronzes outnumber the silvers, and many more fell short of the podium. Perhaps we ask too much of our athletes. There’s no need to apologize for giving their all and falling short, and certainly no shame in being second or third best in the world in any endeavour. After the bronze medal in soccer, Sinclair, as driven a player as you will ever see, revelled in the accomplishment. And her coach John Herdman predicted that even then, parents were in Canada’s parks and backyards, kicking soccer balls with their children, a victory of a sort in itself.