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COLUMNISTS

Wed, August 25, 2004

Always having to say sorry


What began in the ancient city as a day for history ended as just the latest Canadian Olympic calamity.

This seems to be our mythology, our all-too-familiar Olympic anthem of Woe Canada. An ever-shocking mythology in Greece of stunning disappointment, flawed heroes, inexplicable circumstance and failed dreams.

Perdita Felicien ripped off her left shoe and slammed it hard to the track, here in Athens yesterday. And then she did it again with her right as she made her way toward the finish line walking slowly in stocking feet, with her hands covering her face and a tear running down her cheek.

What else could she do? What would you do if all your athletic life you had waited for one moment, one race, and it was over, just like that, in one hurdle. One lousy hurdle.

Thirteen metres of a 100-metre Olympic final and then no more. Eighty-seven metres to walk, a lifetime to burn.

Felicien didn't just catch the first hurdle. She hit in flush. This wasn't an accident as much as it was a disaster.

The hurdle is 33 inches in height, every day and every practice. Yesterday she needed it to be three inches shorter: Felicien slammed the hurdle, lost her balance, fell, took a Russian, Irina Shevchenko, from the field and couldn't, in the end, watch.

"I don't know ... I don't know what to make of it," she said afterward, still emotional but surprisingly composed. "I don't know what happened out there."

We never seem to know what happened out there, only that it didn't. The buildup, the exposure, the expectation, the prediction, the drum beat is eerily the same Olympic year after Olympic year. And then it happens, in one form or another, it always happens.

The men's eight in rowing. Emilie Heymans. Jeremy Wotherspoon. Kurt Browning. Caroline Brunet. Ken Read. Ben Johnson. The list could read longer. All of them world champions.

Every one of theirs no fairy tale, no Olympic ending with any kind of happily ever after.

Does this happen in other places, with athletes we may not know about or care about? Or is it only us? Is this sporting angst exclusively our own?

Ken Read lost a ski just out of the starting gate. Jeremy Wotherspoon caught an edge and tripped. Kurt Browning fell all over himself. Ben Johnson set a world record before they took his medal away. Heymans missed on her best dive.

All of them stories so hard to believe, hard to comprehend, impossible to invent. All of them, except Johnson, Canadian Olympians who were supposed to win and somehow never found the finish line.

AFTER GOLD, GOT SILVER

Alexandre Despatie wanted gold yesterday and ended up with silver. The Canadian baseball team wanted to play for gold and ended up playing the wrong matchup for the wrong medal. Felicien, with a first-hurdle error, started fast and crashed early. Early yesterday the Canadian Olympic Committee was researching the greatest single day in history with reason: By late afternoon, the books were put away.

And all the optimism began not far from the Olympic Stadium, when Lori-Ann Muenzer, picked by no one to win gold, became the second Canadian to be so awarded here. That, too, is really nothing new. It is part of a story that rarely seems to change.

Simon Whitfield wasn't supposed to win. Kerrin Lee-Gartner wasn't supposed to win. Mark Tewksbury wasn't supposed to win. Mark McCoy wasn't supposed to win. Hell, the great Percy Williams wasn't supposed to win. All of them with gold.

Apparently Canadian athletes can host surprise parties; they just can't be the guests of honour. Take away Donovan Bailey, Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle and Catriona LeMay Doan and who else has won when they happened to be the nation's choice?

Who else?

"This is my worst nightmare come true," Perdita Felicien said. "All the people back in Canada cheering for me ... I'm sorry."

We are always ... sorry. That, like the story, never changes.


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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