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COLUMNISTS

Thu, August 12, 2004

Igali not washed up


ATHENS -- Daniel Igali is hurt.

Quite frankly, the pain he feels inside extends far beyond the neck and rib injuries he's battled the last year.

Despite becoming one of Canada's darlings as one of three gold medallists in Sydney, the 30-year-old wrestler is being written off four years later as having little chance of returning to Olympic glory.

In fact, he couldn't help but notice that one media outlet excluded the Nigerian-born grappler from its

top-10 list of Canadians to watch at these games.

"Does it really bother me? I'd be lying if I said no," said Igali at a Canadian team function last night.

"But also, I don't really care. Maybe it's justifiably so and they shouldn't put me in the top 10.

"All of them are medallists from the last year and I wasn't. But we'll see what they're going to write after the Olympics."

Sidelined most of 2003 by spinal-fusion surgery and broken ribs, Igali's chances of defending his gold were dealt another blow by restructured weight categories that will force him to battle larger opponents in the 74-kg class as opposed to his traditional 69-kg event.

Admittedly still in the midst of recovering physically, he says only the expectations -- not his determination or heart -- have changed.

"Four years ago, a lot of Canadians were not aware of me yet -- the press was, though," said Igali.

"I was among the top five Canadians to watch.

I was expected to win because I was a world champion. Here I am not expected to win. This year, there's no pressure on me anymore. I am ranked 11th (out of 12) in my weight class coming in."

Insisting he will enter the games with high expectations for himself, Igali admits there was a time not too long ago he felt differently.

"For the longest time, I was very conflicted about these Olympics," said Igali, who punctuated the Sydney Games with a stirring gold- medal celebration that saw him wrap himself in a Canadian flag before kneeling to kiss it.

"There were some times I thought about packing it in because I didn't want to be unfair to Team Canada, meaning I didn't want to come in not at my best.

"If not, I wanted someone to take my place. I feel I prepared myself well enough to challenge for a good outing.

"Hopefully, if everything goes well we can go straight from the gold medal to the closing ceremonies -- we're used to it."

A tremendous ambassador for his sport and his country, Igali was told earlier this week he may be able to ensure extension of his Olympic career by sitting on the International Olympic Committee's athlete's commission.

Named Canada's nominee in November, the Surrey, B.C., resident found out earlier this week he was put in a brochure outlining the short list of 32 candidates to be voted on by his peers during these games.

"Most of my competitors are athletic and are very well-known athletes -- it's going to be a tough one but we're hoping I'm one of them," said Igali of the four spots available to athletes asked to liaison with IOC by meeting annually and making recommendations on improving the Olympic movement.

"I am a citizen and represent a country that is the best in the world. Any time I have a chance to be on an international stage and represent that country, I will not give it up."

No matter what anyone says.

- - -

CANADA'S COMPETITION

WRESTLING

MEN'S 74-KG

* Bouvaisa Saitiev, Russia -- One of the best freestyle wrestlers in the world.

WOMEN'S 72-KG

* Kyoko Hamaguchi, Japan -- Five-time world champion.

* Toccara Montgomery, U.S. -- Two-time world silver medallist.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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