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Measuring
Aug 07, 2008

There aren’t too many commentators counting on Canadian athletes to have a breakthrough Olympics at Beijing. In fact, they’re downright pessimistic.

National Post columnist Mark Spector’s recent commentary on Canadian athletes’ chances said, “We hate to break it to you, Canada, but Beijing is not going to be pretty.”

Spector said Canada will be lucky to match its 11 medals won at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, when the nation didn’t manage to win a single gold medal.  It seemed the only magical moment of the Montreal Games came when Greg Joy soared over the high-jump bar to finish second and win a silver medal for our nation.

According to Spector, there is absolutely no chance of duplicating the Canadian medal count in the last Olympics in Athens of 12 medals, three of them gold.

On the track — forget about it, he concluded. There have been no real stars in track-and-field since the days of the great Canadian sprinter Donovon Bailey, who established a new record while winning gold in the 100 metres in Atlanta. In recent times, 1996 Atlanta represented Canada’s best medal haul with our athletes winning 22 medals — three gold, 11 silver and eight bronze. 

The best-ever medal total remains the boycott-thinned 1984 Games in Los Angeles where Canadians won 10 gold, 18 silver and 16 bronze medals. Of course, the Soviet Bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Games after most Western nations bowed out of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.

With former world champion Perdita Felicien out of the Olympic line-up in Beijing due to a foot injury, Canada’s gold medal hopes on the track rest with our national 400-metre record holder, Tyler Christopher. The problem is that he faces some rather formidable competition, including Americans Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt.

In order for any of Canada’s athletes to reach the podium, they’ll have to bring their A-game to Beijing, according to analysts.

On the basic reasons Canadian athletes may not do as well in Beijing as past Games is the emphasis this nation places on Olympic victories. In reality, it’s a hit-or-miss situation for Canadian athletes, who are at a disadvantage almost from the outset. Those who reach the medal podium do so despite poor funding and training in poor facilities. The Canadian public loves to cheer on their athletes every Olympic Games, but as soon as the greatest show on earth ends and disappointment is heaped upon disappointment, the plight of our athletes is soon forgotten. Until the next Games, they feast on Kraft Dinner while training to realize their Olympic dream.

The Summer Olympic Games are basically an afterthought to most Canadians, who instead focus on the Winter Olympic Games. They can’t wait to watch the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams compete against the best from other nations. Canadians know the odds are good that their athletes will reach the podium in ice hockey as well as other winter sports such as curling, short-track skating or speedskating. Canada is quite good in the Winter Games, as our country consistently finishes in the top-ranks of competing nations and even tops the medal haul of the Americans.

As the Summer Games start today, many Canadians are looking forward to Vancouver and the Winter Games in 2010.

What about cheering for the field hockey team in Beijing, which is filled with blue-collar and white-collar Canadians forced to take countless hours off from work to fulfill their Olympic aspirations. They aren’t the high-priced professionals of ice hockey fame, but they still deserve our praise for their accomplishment in reaching the Summer Games.

Meanwhile, Canada finished 11th in the Summer Olympics medal count in 1996 and eight years later fell to 21st overall. Instead of getting better, Canada is lagging far behind other smaller nations, such as Australia, which builds upon its successes to become stronger in the subsequent Olympics.

Invariably, the world’s top athletes from the top nations receive plenty of public dollars and corporate sponsorship in order to run faster, jump higher and lift massive weights above their heads — the citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger) of the Olympic motto.

Australia continually surpasses Canada’s medal haul because it does devote massive amounts of taxpayer money to training programs and alleviates the potential stress experienced by athletes struggling to feed and shelter themselves while pursuing their Olympic dream.

Canada has raised the bar by providing additional funding of $48 million through the Road to Excellence program, but that money is only expected to see results four years into the future in London rather than now.

Meanwhile, Canada will have to look our rowing team or super-kayaker Adam van Koeverden, our flag bearer in the opening ceremonies, to provide one of this nation’s best opportunities to bring home the gold. van Koeverden is a current world champion and already has one Olympic gold medal from Athens hanging around his neck.

Some of our top athletes are going to Beijing with either injuries or are recovering from an injury, such as former world-champion diver Alexander Despatie and floor exercise gold medalist in Athens Kyle Shewfelt, which is another reason to downplay the chances of more than a smattering of Canadians reaching the top rung of the podium. Yet, it says a lot about the character of these athletes that they are willing to overcome adversity for a chance to be in Beijing and compete for their nation.

Host nation China has made it a priority to increase its medal haul. As in the former Soviet and East German systems, athletes are identified while young and trained to become the best in their endeavours during the run-up to the Beijing Games. Newsweek ran a recent article on China’s fixation with winning medals. Not to win more medals than in past Olympics would be considered another humiliation at the hands of foreigners, according to the article by Orville Schell.

It’s difficult to fathom such a mindset, but I do like to see our athletes succeed at the Olympics. My expectations may be significantly lower, although I would be in a state of nirvana if our two baseball teams humble the mighty Americans. But success should be judged in moments of greatness, however fleeting, rather than in medals.