Canada's Slow Medal Start at Athens

LET OTHERS OBSESS about Canada's slow medal start in the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens. The national baseball team has better things to do, both on the field and off.

Canada's Slow Medal Start at Athens

LET OTHERS OBSESS about Canada's slow medal start in the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens. The national baseball team has better things to do, both on the field and off. This is the first appearance by a Canadian team since baseball became a medal sport in 1992, but this rookie squad of up-and-comers, minor-leaguers and ex-pros could run a clinic on Olympic spirit, on national pride and, oh yes, on winning - a concept that eluded many of Canada's athletes in the first frustrating week of these Summer Games.

The ball team leads a Canadian march into this week, and what many expect will be a string of more heartening performances. Because now that the focus shifts mercifully away from the underperforming swim team to the sports in which Canada truly contends - diving, triathlon (Sydney gold medallist Simon Whitfield defends his title on Aug. 26), and track and field at the Olympic Stadium. As Perdita Felicien, the reigning world champion in the 100-m hurdles puts it, "It seems the OLYMPICS don't really start rolling until the athletics begin."

At these Games, there's some truth to that. Canada has medal hopes in an array of athletic disciplines, from the running track to the high jump. Felicien, of Pickering, Ont., and teammates Priscilla Lopes of Whitby, Ont., and Angela Whyte of Edmonton, are all fighting for a spot in the 100-m hurdles final, one of the week's marquee events. "Look forward to some great results," Felicien says.

The baseball team, pumped by winning its first four games, have advanced to the semifinals, though the players themselves are aiming for nothing less than a place in the gold-medal game this week. To do that, they'll have to upset Cuba or Japan, whose teams arrived in Athens as the favourites (in the round-robin, Canada lost to Japan 9-1 and to Cuba 5-2). Still, said third baseman Peter Orr of Richmond Hill, Ont., "We control our own destiny now."

Baseball and softball are a puzzlement to soccer-mad Greeks. Spectators at the first game played by the Canadian women's softball team were urged to keep balls hit into the stands and to please not throw them back onto the field. The crowds at ballgames have been thin, even by the spotty attendance standards of these Games. None of that matters to second baseman Stubby Clapp of Windsor, Ont., who first played for Canada at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. "If there's 50,000 or there's two, we're going to play hard every day," says Clapp. "We play because we love the game and because we love representing our country."

Nor have they forgotten to have some fun. Clapp has taken to carting around the team mascot, a bobble-head doll he painted in Canadian colours, bearing the likeness of erstwhile teammate Justin Morneau, who was called up to the Minnesota Twins before the team left for Europe. Ballplayers, and occasionally the bobble-head, have popped up at water polo, diving and softball, cheering for Canadian teammates and downing a beer or two - unlike most of their abstentious fellow athletes.

Dave Bedford, Canada's chef de mission here, cites the ball team's exuberance as one reason why spirits remain high in the athletes village, despite the slow medal start. Another is that Canada's best hopes come later in the Games, he said while sitting in the grandstand at the Schinias rowing venue, where the men's four won silver on Saturday. And the men's world-champion eights were set to open week two against a stacked U.S. team in one of the great confrontations of these Games. "We knew going in that our medal opportunities were pretty back-end loaded," Bedford said. Translation: don't panic, yet.

Still, he concedes it would have been nice to carry more hardware out of the first week. Medals generate energy in the village, he says. "There's an opportunity to get on a bit of a roll, if people start banging home some medals." Track head coach Alex Gardiner is among those whose team members are expected to deliver the goods. He predicts 75 per cent of his 26 athletes will finish in the top 12, with several on the podium. Gardiner says that goal is more achievable since the crackdown on designer drugs and more rigorous testing by the International Olympic Committee. It sends a message to drug cheats: "You know what, you're not safe anymore," Gardiner says. "People are scared, people aren't showing up at meets who in the past would flaunt their new bodies in front of everybody." Last week, star Greek sprinters Kostas Kederis and Ekaterini Thanou made a strategic Olympic withdrawal, avoiding sanctions from the IOC for missed drug tests.

That soap opera hasn't entirely curbed the Athenian embrace of these Games. Ticket sales finally crept over the three-million mark last week, though with some two million tickets still unsold, there are often as many Olympic volunteers as paying customers at lower-profile events. Canadian sprinter Nicolas Macrozonaris, a media star in Athens because of his Greek roots, says shopkeepers in the vibrant downtown Plaka district tell him customers have been scared away by fears of terrorism and chaos.

There have been a few transportation problems, but hardly the disaster many had predicted. In fact, the chief Canadian complaint comes from head rowing coach Brian Richardson, who says the city's band of usually lead-footed bus jockies has proceeded with excruciating caution - slowly driving his antsy crew of type-A rowers to distraction during the hour-long trip to their boats. "They don't seem to understand the urgency of what we're doing," he complained.

The glitches, though, have been minor, the security as inobtrusive as a 70,000-strong force can be, and the heat, well, the heat is hot. It landed veteran Canadian ballplayer Rob Ducey in an Athens hospital after he fainted, reportedly from dehydration. Athletes are never far from a water bottle, and before an event, most use a Canadian-designed cooling vest to lower their core temperature. Perhaps the greater performance challenge, though, is dealing with stress and the pressure of expectations - both theirs, and the country's at large.

Some of the best athletes are able to tune out the distractions, and use stress as a motivational tool. Canada's two top divers, Alexandre Despatie of Laval, Que., and Emilie Heymans of St-Lambert, Que., both competing on the 10-m platform, trained differently for this week's events. Heymans stayed in Athens, where her coach Michel Larouche says she maintained an almost scary sense of focus. Despatie trained away from the distractions of the athletes village. Canada's medal count is not something he worries about. "There's no link between our performance and anybody else's," he says.

There are others to watch this week: two-time kayaking silver medallist Caroline Brunet, triathlete Jill Savege, gymnast Kyle Shewfelt in the men's floor exercise, and the men's 4 x 100-m relay sprint team assembled by coach Glenroy Gilbert. The entire track team this year, in fact, seems more cohesive and less prone to debilitating bouts of ego. Some credit goes to the fun-loving Felicien, who has taken to giving inspirational poetry readings from her balcony in the Olympic Village, both to break the pre-race tension and to lighten the mood. A favourite is an unnamed work in a book she picked up at the Olympic museum here. She quotes the first line from memory: " 'I am not an Olympian because I am fast. I am not an Olympian because I am strong. But I am an Olympian because others are faster ...' " Reactions have ranged from applause in the courtyard below, she says, to a South African athlete on a nearby balcony who dropped his pants and mooned her. She is unperturbed by negative reviews. Motivational readings, she says, help set her up for race day.

The ball team also has a pre-game ritual. They sing O Canada as the bus rolls toward the stadium. It's a song that hasn't been played much on the medal podiums of Athens. They'd like to rectify that.

KEN MacQUEEN

No Second Coming

IN THE END, there was no deus ex machina for the best dramatists that Greece has produced in quite some time. Cornered by the IOC, hounded by the world's media, disgraced in the eyes of their fellow citizens, sprinters Kostas Kederis and Ekaterini Thanou withdrew from the Athens Olympics, saving themselves only the final humiliation of being thrown out on their ears.

The saga, which dominated the Games' first week, came to a shuddering halt last Wednesday. Unable to offer a convincing explanation why they ducked pre-competition drug tests - first in Chicago, then at the athletes' village - or back up a dubious tale of injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash, the pair surrendered their Olympic IDs to IOC investigators. "I will not take part in the Games. I will not race," Thanou, the women's 100-m silver medallist in 2000, told reporters. "It's a very hard thing for an athlete to withdraw from the Olympic Games, especially when they're in their homeland."

Kederis, who came out of nowhere to snatch the 200-m gold in 2000 and became a national hero, went down proclaiming his innocence. "After crucifixion comes resurrection," he said. However, his second coming seems unlikely. The pair and their now ex-coach Christos Tzekos have been linked to the ongoing American BALCO drug scandal. And one U.S. newspaper reports they were identified in seized BALCO emails warning athletes that officials might be testing for THG, a previously undetectable anabolic steroid. Quitting the Games may have been their only way out.

Maclean's August 30, 2004