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Fri, August 6, 2004
Their moments in the sun
Steve Simmons wonders why some athletes save their best for the brightest spotlights
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

After all these years and all those controversies, two moments define Ben Johnson, the athlete. Two races where he was as close to perfect as anyone has ever been.

The first was in Rome in 1987 at the world championships. The second was at the Olympics in Seoul the following year, when he won the 100 metres and lost his reputation. They can take away his medals and eliminate his records, but they can't take what he felt and what everyone watching knew.

And pushing aside the obvious regarding performance-enhancing drugs, one question is never answered by science or syringes: Why are some athletes able to be at their best when it matters most and others are not?

How is it that Johnson was world-record ready when the crowd was the largest and the stakes the highest?

It hasn't been only Johnson in Canadian history. But those moments -- one Olympian, one not -- are forever etched in the minds of anyone who witnessed them.

It seemed not very different on a Saturday night in Atlanta when Donovan Bailey won gold in the 100 metres at the 1996 Olympics, running in world-record time. He then returned one week later to win gold again, running the same distance in the relay event.

Some have been able to find their day, the way Mark Tewksbury did in a swimming pool in Barcelona, or Kerrin Lee Gartner on a ski hill in France, or Catriona LeMay Doan racing around a track in Japan.

Their best athletic day came at the Olympic Games.

Some, such as Bailey or LeMay Doan, were expected to win. Others, such as Lee Gartner or, most recently, Simon Whitfield in the triathlon at Sydney, define themselves with a well-timed performance.

And now, with another Olympic Games upon us, we watch to see who will respond and who won't, who can find that indescribable something that connects one Canadian legend to another, who can deal with the pressures, internal and otherwise.

Daniel Igali had such an experience culminating with a gold medal in wrestling in Sydney. But on the same afternoon Igali was celebrating, Canadian flag-bearer Caroline Brunet found herself wearing a different kind of tears. She had expected gold and nothing else from herself in her paddling event.

Some athletes win silver. On that afternoon, Brunet lost gold.

Now she comes back for another Olympic Games, without a flag to carry, without any real focus from the outside, and another opportunity to have her day.

The same Canadian faces of expectation have been seen everywhere in recent weeks. This is how everything Olympian is built up in this country. There are magazine covers and special sections, while the sponsors who have pumped money into Canadian sport are plastering their advertisements with images of the athletes who have the most to win and lose in Athens.

The faces most seen are that of hurdler Perdita Felicien, teenaged diver Alexandre Despatie and defending gold-medal champion Whitfield.

Whitfield already showed it once -- how he found the right energy and right performance on precisely the right morning.

YOUR OWN WORK

Think about it in terms of your own work: You train every day, you do your job, do your work, compete and then prepare for one event that seems different from all others.

That day, the way Ben Johnson was, the way Donovan Bailey was, becomes your day. That day you are better than you ever were before and have ever been since.

If coaches knew exactly who could and who couldn't and how it could be taught, their lives would be much simpler. But sport, and every Olympics, is a journey by itself -- an exploration of more than noise and controversy.

Who knows which Canadians will find their day and which will not. It is as often a surprise such as Whitfield as it is an expected winner like Bailey. It's why we watch.

And why more people who don't care for sports, and don't necessarily follow them, will become sports fans for the next three weeks.




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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