New wave, same woesOne year to go for Olympians
By STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun
To the average Canadian, Emilie Heymans and David Ford are names that do not ring a bell. In fact, I would bet my life savings that more Canadians know where you can't purchase Nestea iced tea (Micronesia, Upper Mongolia, some parts of Switzerland ...) than know what Heymans and Ford are all about.
Alas, that is the sad lot of Canadian amateur athletes.
Heymans and Ford are world champions in their respective sports, diving and kayaking. And there are others: Roland Green, Guivi Sissaouri, Kevin Light. These people live, train and compete in relative anonymity. They are broke or in debt. In some cases, they even pay out of their own pocket to compete for Canada.
As the football freaks and puckheads on the Toronto Sun sports desk like to say: "Nobody cares."
However, before you dig out the tissues, that could all change a year from now. On Aug. 13, 2004, the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad will begin and Canadians briefly will tune out professional golf , pro wrestling and baseball to watch and celebrate the performances of the 300 athletes dressed in red and white.
To the victors will go the "spoils" -- perhaps a personal sponsor, a speaking engagement, free use of a cellular phone for a year. Nothing spectacular, but unlike most pro jocks, the majority of Olympic athletes don't require a fleet of yachts and a private room at For Your Eyes Only to feel fulfilled.
So, who will be the victors at 2004 Athens Games for Canada?
That's the million-dollar question, but it's a good bet that there will be more Canadian winners in Athens than there were at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Down Under three summers ago, Canadian athletes managed gold medals in only three events and 14 medals in total, placing 24th overall as a team. In 1996 at Atlanta, Canada finished 21st and, at the 1992 Barcelona Games, 11th overall.
Why the drop? And why should the situation in Athens improve?
Amateur sport officials will tell you that the deterioration of the team's performance from Barcelona through to Atlanta and Sydney was the direct result of government funding cutbacks, which began in earnest following the 1988 Seoul Winter Olympics. The feds slashed and burned throughout most of the 1990s and the result was poorer performances.
"We've just started to recover the last year or two," Alex Gardiner, head coach and chief technical officer at Athletics Canada, said this week.
Gardiner said that it takes about three years from the start of budget cutbacks to reflect negatively on the playing field and, conversely, three or four years for performances to improve when funding is increased. That is the situation most Canadian programs find themselves in right now with the slight increase in funding in recent years from Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee -- although there is still a long way to go from the heady days of the late 1980s, early '90s.
Of course, as long as the federal government continues to throw away valuable funds in the name of political correctness, including $8,000 for a boccia ball training camp and $20,000 for a disabled goal ball training camp, it's a good bet Canada's amateur athletes will never receive monies equal, or nearly equal, to their international rivals.
Alan Roaf, executive director at Rowing Canada, said the cutbacks have been a major problem. In recent years, Rowing Canada has been forced to cut back on competitions and training camps. After the Athens Games, Roaf said, there is going to be a severe shortage of equipment on the team.
"In the Canadian system, we are hanging on by the skin of our teeth," said Roaf. "Really, we're playing catchup (with the rest of the world) every year."
Fortunately, the financial situation has improved. Sport Canada carding (living allowances) has increased. The COC has done a lot more to augment the fed's meagre contributions. And, in some cases, corporate Canada has stepped up to the plate.
Based on performances by Canadian athletes this summer at world championships and World Cup events, the team in Athens likely will return with 15-20 medals, an improvement from Sydney, though not exactly dramatic.
Victory, however, will not come from the traditional areas.
For the two largest teams at the Olympics, the track and field and swim squads, there is nowhere to go but up. In Sydney, a total of 80 athletes in those two sports came home with one medal.
In terms of government support, these two programs take up a large chunk of Sport Canada's contributions to amateur sport. In recent years, however, the return has been minimal. In order for Canada to make a real move in the medal standings, both of those teams have to improve dramatically.
Unfortunately, as is stands now, neither squad has anyone, or any relay team, ranked in the top three in the world.
That's not to say no one is close. In track and field, Brampton high jumper Mark Boswell is always a potential medallist. Unfortunately, Boswell has been hobbled by a sore ankle for more than a year. Sprinters Pierre Browne of Toronto and Nick Macrozonaris of Montreal are still a few years away from reaching the podium, as are throwers Jason Tunks of London and Brad Snyder of Windsor.
Hurdler Perdita Felicien of Pickering and middle distance runner Diane Cummins of Victoria are top five material and could, on a good day, break on to the podium. Everyone of those athletes are in their 20s and should be around for years go come.
"We have some young talent, although I'm not sure if Athens is the place where it's going to show itself," Gardiner said. "When you look at our team, there are very few near the end of their career."
Gardiner and his counterpart on the swim team, Dave Johnson, agree that, with more money for training and competition, their performances would improve.
"Absolutely," Gardiner said. "When I first walked into the door as president in 1994, we were hit with an $800,000 funding cut, which was only the first wave of cuts."
The synchro swimming team has always landed on the podium at Olympics, but both the duet and team squads failed to win a medal at the recent world aquatic championships in Barcelona and have their work cut out for them in Athens.
The two strongest Canadian teams right now are diving and rowing. In fact, the diving team, led by 18-year-old Alexandre Despatie of Laval, Que., is one of the best in the world. Despatie and Emilie Heymans of Greenfield Park, Que., won 10-metre titles at the recent world championships in Barcelona while Blythe Hartley of Vancouver captured a bronze.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding quadrennial for the rowing squad, which managed only one medal in Sydney. Instead, the squad, thanks, in part, because world renowned coaches Brian Richardson and Mike Spracklen have returned to the program, has exploded back with a vengeance following the glory days of Silken Laumann, Derek Porter, Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle.
There are no big-name stars in singles events on the Canadian rowing team these days, just powerful crews, including the defending world champion men's eight.
At the one World Cup stop the Canadian team participated in this summer -- at Lucerne, Switzerland, the top event of the season -- the squad hauled in five medals, including golds from the men's eight, the heavyweight men's four and the women's pair of Karen Clark of Delta, B.C., and Jacqui Cook of Burlington. The lightweight men's four lost the gold medal in a photo finish to Italy and the women's eight were third.
One of the big surprises this season has been the showing of kayaker David Ford of Edmonton. At 36, not many expected the three-time Olympian to continue to develop as an athlete on the whitewater World Cup circuit. But Ford has proven the naysayers wrong. Just this past week, he was crowned the overall World Cup champion, after winning the K1 gold at a World Cup stop in Bratislava, Slovakia.
The entire canoe/kayak team should be strong in Athens. The squad captured seven medals at the World Cup in Duisburg, Germany, in June. Olympic sprint medallists Steve Giles and Caroline Brunet of Lac-Beauport, Que., are both back, and Karen Furneaux or Waverly, N.S. is right there.
In Sydney, the usually strong boxing team failed to earn a medal. The Sydney squad was rife with cliques and malcontents. The present squad, however, appears ready to make its mark in Athens.
Led by Laval, Que., light-middleweight Jean Pascal, the Canadian team ruled at last year's Commonwealth Games by winning seven medals, including two golds. Pascal and Sydney veteran Andrew Kooner in the 54-kg division, are considered the best bets for medals next summer. But in Olympic boxing, the random draw means almost everything. You can face the world champion in the first round or waltz into the final thanks to an easy draw.
The men's basketball team was the story of the Sydney Games for Canada. Led by Dallas Mavericks star guard Steve Nash, the Canadian squad made it all the way to the quarter-finals, before losing a heartbreaker to France. Along the way, Nash and Co. defeated such teams as former world champion Yugoslavia.
However, even with Nash in the lineup at the Olympic qualifying tournament later this month in Puerto Rico, Canada will be hard-pressed to repeat its performance in Athens. Nash plays hard every game, but it's rare to be able to conjure up such an inspired effort as he did in Australia.
Another medal favorite will be the women's water polo team, which currently is ranked third in the world.
Defending Olympic champion Daniel Igali of Surrey, B.C., who has missed most of the season with a herniated disc, and Guivi Sissaouri of Montreal, the 2001 58-kg world champion, are back on the wrestling mat, if not a little older and broken down.
For the first time in Athens, female wrestling will be on the Olympic calendar, and Canada has one of the top programs in the world, so at least one medal should be won there.
Kingston's Simon Whitfield, another champ from Sydney, and Carol Montgomery of North Vancouver, remain top-five material in triathlon.