Canada's Disappointing Week at 2002 Winter Games

Behold the long-suffering Canadian sports fan. A curious beast, prone to moans and grumbling and yet, for all that, possessed of a seemingly indomitable, utterly inexplicable, sense of optimism. This time things will be different. This time my heart will not break.

Behold the long-suffering Canadian sports fan. A curious beast, prone to moans and grumbling and yet, for all that, possessed of a seemingly indomitable, utterly inexplicable, sense of optimism. This time things will be different. This time my heart will not break.

And so it was here in the sleepy burg of Ogden, Utah, during the 19th Winter Games, that fans like Rob Spicer of Mission, B.C., wrapped himself quite literally in the Canadian flag and sat in the stands to live and die by the success of our plucky Canadian curlers. And it was to here in Salt Lake City that Calgary businessman John Podorieszach drove in a camper to fill the head of his 12-year-old daughter Sarah with memories and dreams, for one day she will be a great luger. And to have her picture taken with former Crazy Canuck Ken Read, thereby honouring both past and future.

And it was here in the High Mormon university city of Provo that four 22-year-olds - Eric Ehman and Darryl Tenisci of Trail, B.C., Dan Buchanan of Hanna, Alta., and Stephen Kotkas of Calgary - did adorn themselves with red body paint, and fatten the wallet of a ticket scalper, and fill their fake binoculars with Canadian rye. This to fortify themselves in the event that Canada's men's hockey giants might fall to Germany. In fact, they won, and so the flickering dream burned a bit brighter.

Hope is as eternal as the tides. Great expectations, too great expectations for our 157 athletes at these Games, were pulled time and again off the shoals, so they might be dashed yet again.

Was it only Feb. 6 at a Canadian fête in Salt Lake that team chef de mission Sally Rehorick was brashly predicting this team would finish third in the medals? Instead, Canada made no forward progress and struggled not to backslide, while the massive U.S. investment in preparing athletes as well as facilities for these Games paid extraordinary dividends. They more than doubled their record medal count, meaning the dominant snow sports power in North America is now a country Canadians visit to log winter beach time.

But, hey, no pressure. As Canada spun out, the fans exercised their God-given right to free screech, until it seemed, to those athletes unwise enough to listen, that the wails of 30 million lost souls filled their every waking hour.

In the second week, the short-track team did its part to boost the medal totals despite the usual thrills and spills. The women's 3,000-m relay team captured a bronze, and the enduring Marc Gagnon skated to bronze in the men's 1,500 m. But long-track speed skaters finished out of the medals, a major disappointment to Jeremy Wotherspoon, Mike Ireland and Dustin Molicki, who'd all had a realistic hope of reaching the podium. Catriona Le May Doan did not add to her previous week's gold and Cindy Klassen, something of a surprise bronze medalist the first week, finished fourth in the 1,500-m, a result that was less of a disappointment than an exceeded expectation.

When the women's speed-skating competition concluded, so too did the Olympic careers of Canada's two great female sprinters, Le May Doan and Susan Auch. "It was hard to come off the ice," said Auch, a two-time Olympic silver medallist. "It's always emotional at the end of an Olympics, but it was more so today." Le May Doan just seemed relieved. She had borne the weight of being the prohibitive favourite - prior to the women's 500, one local paper called her "the surest bet for gold at these Games" - as well as carrying the flag going into the opening ceremonies. She took a long time untying her skates after the 1,000, lingering on the bench. "I've done what I can here," she said later, "and I'm happy with that."

There was a less-satisfying Olympic departure for ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, whose near-perfect free skate ended with them collapsed in a heap on the ice, after a momentary lapse of focus in the closing seconds of their performance. The heartbreak kids were relegated to another Olympic fourth place.

So dismal were the men's downhill results that the Canadian Alpine Ski Team announced mid-Games that it was firing four coaches and terminating the men's World Cup racing program for the rest of the 2002 season. There were disappointing finishes by Edi Podivinsky and Darin McBeath, and worse luck dogged David Anderson. His hopes of racing in the super-G and combined ended after an ugly crash into a winch cable of a snow-grooming machine left him hospitalized for several days with soft-tissue injuries.

There were highlight-reel victories, too. Who can forget Canadian Beckie Scott's dramatic rush to bronze in cross-country skiing, or the NASCAR-style short-track crash that left the last man standing, Australia's Steven Bradbury, with a gold? Canada's Mathieu Turcotte bum-slid across the finish line, safe at third place with a bronze. There's a moral victory of sorts in the Canadian-inspired reforms to figure-skating judging, announced here. If accepted by the International Skating Union, an arcane and dubious system of ranking skaters will be replaced by one as fair and open as, say, the selection of the next Pope.

The wisest path to success may have been avoiding the hype altogether. Who outside the freestyle skiing world had heard of Veronica Brenner and Deidra Dionne until they emerged as the silver and bronze medallists in women's aerials? Both women wanted it that way. No buzz equals less stress. "We were flying under the radar," said Brenner. All the way to the podium.

There was no hope of that for the high-priced help on the men's hockey team. By mid-week the gratuitous public doubt and criticism caused even Wayne Gretzky, the team's usually unflappable executive director, to blow a fuse. In the Provo arena, Canadian Stephen Kotkas explained a fan's view of the gold-medal stakes. "I think if we don't win," he said, "Canada loses part of its identity." But, hey, no pressure.

For American athletes, virtue is its own reward, but a gold pays US$25,000; silver, $15,000; bronze, $10,000. The payoffs were less evident elsewhere, and the search for scapegoats were ongoing. In Utah last week, several countries were rounding up the usual suspects, none more enthusiastically than Russia. Its sports leaders, citing "non-objective" judging in figure skating, hockey and cross-country skiing (in the latter, star Larisa Lazutina was disqualified for high levels of hemoglobin, a possible sign of drug use), made hollow noises about leaving early. They also threatened to take a pass on the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, an unwelcome return to the boycotts of the Cold War era.

Canadians, who cashed in major karmic points to have the pairs medals of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier upgraded from silver to first-class, aren't likely to run crying to the IOC for years to come. Although, hey, what gives with that dyspeptic American referee in the Canadian women's gold-medal game? In victory we are magnanimous: she was probably resting the Canadians by keeping at least one in the penalty box at all times.

For all the great performances, the lingering impression of 2002 is of disappointment and concern for the future. Federal secretary of state for amateur sport Paul DeVillers, appointed to the post in January, inherits a portfolio that was decimated by massive cutbacks to national team funding in the 1990s. That resulted in predictably poor results at the 2000 Summer Olympics, at last year's world track and field championships in Edmonton and, to a lesser extent, in Salt Lake. Some of the funding has since been restored, and DeVillers says he wants to get former greats such as speed skater Gaetan Boucher, biathlete Myriam Bedard and skier Ken Read more involved with directing amateur sport policy. But Canadian high-performance development programs are thin on up-and-coming talent in both summer and winter disciplines.

The solution isn't just about handing money to athletes, DeVillers says. It's about bricks and mortar, too. The facilities left behind by Olympics in Calgary and Montreal are getting long in the tooth. The opportunity to train on the oval in Calgary, for instance, helped Canada develop a strong speed-skating team, but that advantage is being lost to Americans who have access to state-of-the-art facilities recently built south of the border. "We need more training facilities," he says, "and in more than just one location in the country."

Aware of the shortcomings, amateur sport insiders were startled by the Canadian Olympic Association's predictions of 20 medals in Salt Lake. Even more shocking was the COA's claim that its team would contend with heavyweights from Germany, Russia and the U.S. for the overall medals title by the 2010 Games. If so, where is the kind of young talent that put 16-year-old American figure skater Sarah Hughes on the gold-medal podium? Canada's team leaders here are veterans. Many - Le May Doan, Jean-Luc Brassard, Elvis Stojko, Bourne and Kraatz included - are on the verge of retirement from amateur competition. "I know you need a target, a goal," the diplomatic DeVillers told Maclean's. "But when you say we're going to win a certain number of medals, well, I don't think that's the best way to measure the effectiveness of your programs."

No, there were far too many personal bests and inspiring moments to write this off as failure. Canadian fans and future athletes will take from this, as from all great experiences, the seed of hope. And while the ground is fallow and the funding poor, these will sprout, improbably, in a few stout hearts.

A little boy in Ottawa will drop his hockey stick for the long blades of speed skating. A little girl in B.C., another in Quebec and others in every whistle stop on the Prairies, will have watched the television, transfixed by a bonspiel as Kelley Law once was, and they will pick up a curling broom. And another girl, perhaps even in Veronica Brenner's tiny hometown of Sharon, Ont., or Deidra Dionne's Red Deer, Alta., will defy gravity and economic common sense by becoming an aerial skier.

One day, maybe four years, or eight, or 12 years from now, we will read their names, too. And the best of them will say, as Brenner and Dionne did in the days after their medals, that there was no sacrifice in what they did. Not in the hours of practice, or the tight money or even in the pain of Brenner's reconstructed knee. "What people call sacrifices," says Dionne, "I call opportunities." And so the dream endures.

Maclean's March 4, 2002