Tewksbury’s Olympic comeback

Why the one-time critic of the IOC signed on as chef de mission for 2012

Photograph by Jeff McIntosh

To watch a replay of Mark Tewksbury’s Olympic gold medal swim in Barcelona is to realize how the world has changed since 1992—enough for an outspoken critic of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a gay man, no less, to be named this week as the chef de mission for Canadian athletes at the 2012 London Summer Games. In that Barcelona pool 18 years ago, eight men in skimpy Speedos—paper suits, they called them, for they were that thin—lined up for the 100-m backstroke final. Most wore bathing caps or shaved their heads to reduce friction. Tewksbury, an exception, kept his thick head of hair uncovered because he wanted to feel the water. His strategy worked well enough: the 24-year-old, in a come-from-behind sprint, touched the wall first in an Olympic-record 53.98 seconds.

The event seems quaintly uncomplicated compared to today’s high-tech full-body suits, those miracles of science that helped shred aquatic records at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. But as with the backstroke itself, much was happening below the surface—in the backrooms of the IOC and in the life of a conflicted young man. By the end of the 1990s, the Olympic movement would be embroiled in a bribery scandal over Salt Lake City’s winning bid for the 2002 Winter Games, and Tewksbury would not only out himself as a gay man, but go from ultimate Olympic insider to one of the IOC’s fiercest critics.

Taken together, this makes the Canadian Olympic Committee’s selection this week of Tewksbury as chef de mission all the more remarkable. The two-year stint as team spokesman, advocate, mentor and planning liaison requires having the absolute trust of both athletes and the Canadian elite sports hierarchy. The surprise is not so much that Tewksbury would be offered the role—he’s amply qualified after three Olympic medals and two decades as an author and gifted motivational speaker—but that he would want the job. “For sure I had to think long and hard and really believe what I’m stepping back into, and I really do,” he told Maclean’s in his first interview since accepting the post.

Tewksbury retired from competition after Barcelona and climbed the ranks as an athlete representative on the IOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). He travelled the world as part of the IOC’s site-selection commission—a life of first-class flights, five-star hotels and the generous, fawning attention of Olympic bid cities. The IOC’s “culture of entitlement” was both seductive and unsettling, he would later write in his book, Inside Out: Straight Talk From a Gay Jock. With growing unease, he sensed many decisions were “predetermined” in the upper ranks, and that the needs of athletes were secondary considerations. He was also chafing at advice from some Canadian colleagues to keep his homosexuality hidden.

Two events in late 1998 changed his world. He outed himself as a homosexual in a series of media interviews. “I never wanted to make such a private issue public, but it just came to the point where it was necessary,” he says. At the same time, the Salt Lake scandal erupted.

By February 1999, disillusioned, he not only quit the IOC, the COC and the International Swimming Federation, he slammed the door. The trigger was the attempt by then-IOC head, the late Juan Antonio Samaranch, to limit fallout from the scandal rather than deal with the corruption. “He, as the leader of the movement, responded by taking no personal responsibility, deflecting the problem to a handful of African [IOC] delegates. I thought it was repulsive what he did. I knew how much he knew,” says Tewksbury, who campaigned for Samaranch’s resignation.

Tewksbury began inching back into the fold as early as 2004, sharing his experiences at gatherings of Canada’s Olympic athletes, who were always his first priority. He likes what he sees as the new professionalism of the COC and, with qualifications, innovations like the IOC’s anti-doping initiatives and tighter controls on the bid process. Canadian initiatives like the “bold” Own the Podium program, which provides additional resources to the strongest medal hopefuls, also appeal to his killer instinct. “The reality is,” he says, “the Olympics are about excellence, and about high performance.”

Canada’s unprecedented haul of 14 gold medals in Vancouver created a national taste for victory. But Tewksbury warns that owning the podium in London won’t mean topping the medal count. Some 200 nations will be competing, compared to 82 in Vancouver. Many have a depth of talent in summer sports that Canada can only match on ice and snow. The COC is aiming for a top 12 finish, up from a 14th-place tie in Beijing. “Owning the podium still means we want to be the best we’ve ever been,” says Tewksbury, “and we want to win more medals that we’ve ever won.” In that regard, the success in Vancouver has, he says, inspired summer athletes to a higher level. And one outsider.

In Vancouver, Tewksbury was invited to speak to Canada’s athletes just before they marched into the opening ceremonies. He shared a moment from Barcelona. Alone in his room before the final heat, he’d assessed the competition, all hungry for medals, and, aloud, had asked a question: “Why not me?” He thought of the 16 years he’d invested in this moment. He was ready. Why not me was no longer a question. It was a challenge.

Perhaps by sharing that story the prodigal son was preparing his return to the Olympic fold. A different time. He was ready. They were ready. Chef de mission? Why not.