Cam Cole: These are the Olympic Games that Announce Canada’s Not Just Happy to be Here Anymore
RIO DE JANEIRO — This was written from Beijing, a week into the 2008 Olympics …
They are streaming by in increasing numbers now, the foreign journalists.
They look at us anxiously as we sit in our little Canadian writing enclave in the main press centre to see how we’re taking it. Should they say something solicitous? Should they make a little joke, to break the ice? Or just tiptoe past, trying not to make eye contact?
Some, like my Aussie buddy Robert, dispense with diplomacy.
“Have you still not won a medal?” he asks.
“How many athletes do you have here?”
“And no medals?” he says. “Well, that’s a stunning display of ineptitude, isn’t it?”
Cut to: Rio main press centre, present day …
“Hey, Rosie MacLennan won gold in trampoline.”
“How many’s that now?”
“Let’s see … two gold, two silver, is it four or five bronze?”
“I don’t know, I’ve lost count.”
How soon we forget the bad old days, when the midpoint of an Olympics was marked by the obligatory Canadian Olympic Committee press conference to point out the positives gleaned from finals made and medailles chocolat earned, as the French call fourth-place finishes.
No, that’s not quite true. We haven’t forgotten, which is why it is so stunning, this faith-restoring first week in Rio, in which the female titans of our land have presented us with a bonanza unlike anything this oldtimer has seen in 15 previous Olympic Games.
Inspired from the beginning by the mesmerizing teenager Penny Oleksiak, barely 16 years old, a swimming afterthought only a year ago, who has already won more medals than any Summer Olympian in our country’s history, Team Canada has risen to every occasion — or at least, so many of them that we have quickly forgotten the ones who didn’t. In the bad old days, we would dwell on their failures; today, we send them off with a sympathetic wink and a “You’ll get ’em next time.”
And best of all, though she was where the groundswell began, and has now risen to the status of national obsession, Oleksiak hasn’t been the whole story, not even at the pool.
This is no Turin in 2006, where speedskater Cindy Klassen won five medals, Canada finished third in the overall medal count with 24 and only much later did Own The Podium’s Roger Jackson utter the sobering reminder: “People don’t remember that one gal won five of our medals. And if she’d had a cold during the Games, we’d have been sixth or seventh.”
We’re early days still in Rio, but already Canadian divers, sevens rugby players, rowers, and a trampolinist have joined the parade to the podium, and still ahead are track and field’s plethora of events in which Canada has contenders, women’s soccer and basketball, men’s doubles tennis, kayak, golf, mountain bike, beach volleyball and a few more swim possibilities. One of them came in Friday night, a bronze for White Rock, B.C.’s Hilary Caldwell in the 200m backstroke, the swim team’s sixth medal.
Is it only 12 years since then-Canadian sports minister Stephen Owen delivered this ominous message prior to the Athens Olympics?
“It seems to me that Canadians are much less concerned about not having a lot of medals than they are excited when they get a lot,” he told us. “They take the good and enjoy it, but we don’t see it as necessarily bad that we get a few less medals one year than another year.”
Oh yeah? They’d see it as bad now. Having invested in sport since Own The Podium cranked up the machine and sponsors and benefactors began climbing on board — and having seen the concrete results of that investment — it’s doubtful if Canada is about to accept being happy to participate any more.
How unknown was Oleksiak before this week? Olympic historian Bill Mallon, a maven of all things statistical, wrote: “If you had asked me one week ago who or what Penny Oleksiak was, I would have said an inexpensive vegetable oil.”
From nowhere, almost, she already has more medals than the entire Canadian swim team has won in any Olympics since Los Angeles in 1984, which was boycotted by the U.S.S.R., East Germany and 12 other Soviet allies.
You already know this, but just for fun: Oleksiak’s gold is just the second ever by a Canadian woman in the pool (Anne Ottenbrite, 200-metre breaststroke, 1984).
She is the youngest Canadian ever to win gold, surpassing 17-year-old trap shooter George Genereux in 1952, and she’s the first Olympic gold medalist born in the 21st century.
Maybe best of all, she is being recognized for achievements that might not have been quite the same in another era — when the Russians in Beijing and London, or the East Germans of the 1970s and ’80s were artificially engineering their athletes.
In a cleaner pool — not perfect, but with a lot more countries running just a little scared of the testers — Oleksiak has gotten her just reward. Her gold medal swim was an Olympic record, so however dirty the pool might have been in previous Games, even the cheaters never beat her time.
It had been 24 years since the last Canadian gold in the pool, Mark Tewksbury’s 100-metre backstroke win in Barcelona.
“I remember Nicolas Gill won bronze in judo and I won gold on Day 6 of the Olympics, and you know, by that time everyone’s just clamouring for a medal,” Tewksbury said Friday. He was the chef de mission in London four years ago, so he knows the drill.
He remembers Athens, where he was a CBC analyst, when Canada had one synchro diving medal to show for the first seven days and the swimmers were about as likely to drown as to win a medal.
“Saturday was the day they always did the mid-Games press conference. Usually, it was, ‘Hang in there, the medals are coming in the second week,’” he said. “It’s completely the other end of the spectrum here, which for me, is a real delightful surprise.
“For sure, outside of the swim team, I don’t think anyone expected it. I honestly totally didn’t. Even putting myself out there, I thought we could get a medal in one of the women’s relays. Now, if they come through (Saturday) night, they’re going to win a medal in all of the women’s relays. The way the swim team has performed has just completely changed the dynamics of the Rio Olympics.”