This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 16, 2012
Olympics: Almost Famous
Don't get her wrong, representing Canada at the Beijing OLYMPICS was one of the great experiences of Sultana Frizell's life. Marching in the Opening Ceremonies, wearing the red maple leaf and, when it came time to chuck her four kilograms of steel, the unimaginable thrill of standing on the field at the Bird's Nest stadium in front of 91,000 people. But the truth was that few were there to watch her, or the other women's hammer throwers. The cheering and the attention was reserved for the men's 400-m heats taking place on the track at the same time. Back home, her event wasn't being carried on TV; it was relegated instead to live streaming on the CBC website. Her parents couldn't even watch. Their house in the countryside near Perth, Ont., only has dial-up.
And Frizell--who shattered her own Canadian record and entered the world's top 10 with a toss of 75.04 m earlier this season--knows that it won't really be any different this time around in London. "When it comes to the Olympics, hammer throwing is definitely the smelly kid on the playground," the 28-year-old says with a laugh. The Games motto--citius, altius, fortius, translates to "faster, higher, stronger." There's nothing in there about "equal."
Anonymity is the rule, not the exception, on the world's biggest sporting stage. There will be 10,500 athletes representing 205 nations competing at the 2012 Summer Games, and the vast majority of them are destined to return home just as overlooked as when they arrived. With 302 medal events in 26 different sports spread out over 17 days, there is simply too much for the average fan to follow. And for every star like Usain Bolt, who became an instant global icon by streaking to victory in the men's 100-m sprint in Beijing, there are hundreds of Olympians who would be overjoyed just to be recognized by anyone other than their friends and family.
Vancouver's Inaki Gomez started out as a swimmer, specializing in the 200-m butterfly, before a car accident early in his teens left him with a damaged disc in his neck and changed his athletic path. Unable to train in the pool, he switched his focus to the track and discovered a talent and passion for race walking. He was the provincial boys champion his last two years of high school. During his time at the University of British Columbia, he placed fifth at the World University Games and was named the school's outstanding male athlete. He is ranked number one in Canada over the 20-km distance, and is aiming to place among the top 15 in the world in London. And in a sport where one foot has to be on the ground at all times, his average pace-per-kilometre is just a tick over four minutes--something few runners can sustain. But all that doesn't buy you much respect. He sees the people gaping as he powers past them on the sea wall in Stanley Park, and hears their sniggering, and sometimes even the taunts and insults. It's part of being a race walker--at least in North America--and you simply have to learn to let it roll off your back. "Anything that anybody would say about our sport we've heard at one point or another," says the 24-year-old. "You become thick-skinned about it."
There are a few places where the sport is truly cherished. Earlier this spring, Gomez competed at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Cup in Saransk, Russia, a place he refers to as the "Mecca of race walking." The national training centre since Soviet days, and the capital of the Republic of Mordovia, the city is a little off the beaten track--the few images linked to Google maps include a picture of goats standing at the feet of a statue of Lenin--but the locals know their stuff. Gomez was impressed to see banners depicting the sport's greats hanging from the lampposts, and awed by the tens of thousands who lined the streets to watch the race. Their support helped inspire him to a 14th-place finish in the strongest field he has yet encountered in his young career.
Gomez expects the atmosphere in London to be similar--the race walking course runs along the mall in front of Buckingham Palace and it is one of the Games' few unticketed events, open to anyone who cares to come and watch. But he's also realistic about how much attention his own efforts are likely to garner back in Canada. For most fans, race walking is a peripheral sport at best. It would probably take an Olympic medal to even start changing that, but for now Gomez is content with the knowledge that fellow Olympians understand he is every bit as much an athlete as they are. "They know the level of intensity and effort that we put into it," he says.
The enormous scope of the Summer Games--which boasts 11 more sports and almost four times as many athletes as the Winter quadrennial--guarantees not every event will find a place in the sun. But in recent years, the International Olympic Committee has moved to limit the size of the competition, and winnow away some of the less popular pursuits. When BMX bike racing became an official medal event in 2008, it was at the expense of the 1000-m track cycling time trial. Golf and rugby sevens will join the Olympics at Rio 2016, taking the spots of baseball and softball, which were turfed for failing to attract enough nations (and TV viewers), despite their popularity in the Americas and parts of Asia. The churn has been fairly constant over the years. All told, more than 50 sports have now come and gone since the first modern Games in 1896. Rope climbing was a medal event on five different occasions. There was once an Olympic swimming obstacle race where competitors had to clamber over rowboats, and a contest to see who could glide the furthest after diving into the pool. The 1900 Paris Games had a live pigeon-shooting contest--Léon de Lunden of Belgium won gold with 21 confirmed kills. And for three Olympics starting with Los Angeles in 1984, solo synchronized swimming was a sport. Tastes change.
But the temptation to judge sports on the basis of how many spectators or how much media attention they attract does disservice to the athletes. There are no easy paths to the Olympics.
Cory Niefer began shooting competitively 24 years ago, when he was a preteen army cadet in Yorkton, Sask. The Canadian air rifle champion for more than a decade, he missed out on a 2008 Olympic berth by a couple of millimetres, placing second at the 2007 PAN AM GAMES. Sticking with his dream meant enduring another four years of travel and penury, but the 36-year-old will finally be there in London, competing in two disciplines, standing and prone. In preparation, he's taken a year away from his work as a sports psychologist in Saskatoon (the federal government provided him with four months' worth of funding) and thrown himself into training. An average day now begins with an hour of stretching and visualization, followed by two range sessions totalling five hours, and then a couple of more hours in the gym working on his cardio, core strength and flexibility. "As shooters, we have to do our physical training outside of our technical training," he says.
Hitting a one-centimetre-wide bullseye from 10 metres away is no simple matter--just the beating of your heart is enough to throw off your aim. A perfect shot demands that you are both perfectly still and entirely relaxed at the moment you squeeze the trigger. Niefer likens it to holding an incredibly difficult yoga pose. "Most sports are all about movement; ours is about non-movement," he explains. "You can't use your nervous energy or adrenalin." The opening round is more of a marathon, with competitors given one hour and 45 minutes to fire 60 shots. And then when the medals are on the line, it becomes a sprint, 10 shots with no more than 75 seconds between them. "There's a huge mental component," says Niefer. "And that's where my talent really lies."
Donna Vakalis of Toronto will also have to contend with those challenges on the range, but in her case they will come toward the end of a five-event day. The 32-year-old architect is one of two Canadian women competing in the modern pentathlon, which combines fencing, a 200-m swim race, a round of show jumping on an unfamiliar horse, and a three-kilometre run interspaced with stops to shoot at targets with a pistol. "It's probably the Games' most exciting and eccentric event," she says. Introduced by the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, in 1912, it is meant to replicate the experiences of a 19th-century soldier carrying a message across enemy lines.
Vakalis knows that few Canadians share her enthusiasm for the sport. And the indifference even extends to the federal government and the groups that help Olympians--she receives a total of $6,000 a year in funding from her province and federation and pays for the rest of her training and travel on her credit cards. Attempts to convince her bank to extend her a line a credit have been met with incredulity. And her sponsors are a couple of friends who allow her to live in their home rent-free, and the Toronto company that gives her boxes of power bars. "If you have any riches, you part with them to become a pentathlete," she says. But the scant prospects of fame, fortune or even recognition haven't diminished her satisfaction and excitement over having made it to London. "The reward is the competition itself, and the training," says Vakalis, who started the pentathlon in her teens, long before the women's event became part of the Olympics in 2000. "I'm doing it for me."
Sultana Frizell has a similar explanation for why she continues to sweat and strain in pursuit of excellence, but surely little glory. The hammer throw is the only track and field event that's excluded from the IAAF's "Diamond League," a globe-circling series of stadium competitions featuring large cash prizes. The rationale is that heavy metal balls tear up the infield too badly, and pose a potential threat to other competitors and officials. Instead, there's the "IAAF Hammer Throw Challenge," nine events in far-flung places like Korea and Senegal, where the winner takes home US$2,000, the silver medallist $1,500, and the third-place finisher $1,000. They're fun, but hardly big time. "For the one in Eugene, Ore., we had about 100 people watching, which was great," says Frizell. "And in the Czech Republic there was a crowd of about 50."
No wonder then that her all-time favourite competition isn't the challenge circuit or even the Olympics, but a festival in Fränkisch-Crumbach, a German town of 3,000 about an hour outside of Frankfurt, that's held each June. The locals set up the throwing cages on a field behind the grocery store and turn out en masse to cheer. There's a beer garden and sausage vendors. "By the end of the competition there are 1,000 drunk-ass Germans who are just so excited you are there," enthuses Frizell. "It's amazing." (Do a little digging on YouTube and you will find a video of the six-foot, 220-lb. former figure skater performing a cartwheel at the medal ceremony to show her appreciation.)
She's looking forward to once again hitting the centre stage in London and competing in front of 80,000 people in the main stadium. And if few people are actually paying attention when her big moment comes, it doesn't really matter. This time her mother will be on hand to watch, just in case there's no TV coverage, or Internet problems back home. And her friends on the field will be cheering. "We know we're not the premier event," she says. "So we try to motivate ourselves. We get excited for each other." After all, even without the hype, it's still the Olympics.
Maclean's July 16, 2012