Rochette Canada's best at Games

By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

VANCOUVER -- One of the oddest claims here at the climax of the 21st Winter Olympics – heard, it has to be stressed, not just from impressionable visitors – is that Canada would hand back every hard won gold, silver and bronze in exchange for victory over the Americans in today’s hockey final.

Would Canada really do that? It is hard to believe, not least because one of the casualties erased in the roll call of Olympic glory would be Joannie Rochette.

The figure skater from Quebec is surely the athlete of the games.

A lot of sentimentality, no doubt, goes into that assessment but there is another perspective, too, and it comes from an impeccable source.

Lord Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2112 Organising Committee, has been one of two of the greatest of British Olympians monitoring the Vancouver Games. The other is Sir Steven Redgrave, a winner of an astonishing five rowing golds from Los Angeles in 1984 to Sydney in 2000.

Both, with varying degrees of emphasis, have commended Canada’s Own the Podium policy as a logical extension of any nation’s hopes of creating a memorable Olympics. But it was the achievement of Rochette which seemed most vivid in the mind of Coe when he reflected on the last two weeks over breakfast on the seafront here this week.

“If you wanted a symbol of achievement in the Olympics, of dealing with all the kind of pressures they bring up, I just don’t think you could improve on the effort of this young woman who on top of all her other challenges had to deal with terrible grief.

“She handled all of that pressure and she gave a great performance……it is at the very heart of what has to be done if you want to succeed at this level. Now that British athletes are facing the pressure that so many Canadian athletes have responded to so well it cannot be emphasized enough that they have to focus on more than their times and the success of their training.

“They have to work with their coaches to deliver performance when so much is expected of them. It is the hardest thing an athlete can face and here we have seen it pulled off repeatedly, especially in the second week. When you consider the background of Canada not winning a gold medal in the two home Olympics it has indeed been a remarkable effort, and most of all by Joannie Rochette in all her circumstances.”

As Coe spoke, it was easy to recall the worst moment of his superb career. It was when he was half-carried out of the Olympic stadium in Moscow by his father and coach Peter after disaster in the 800 metres. He found himself trapped and beaten as his fierce rival and compatriot Steve Ovett came home for the gold. You wouldn’t have given much for Coe’s chances of redemption in the 1500 metres if you had seen him then. He looked not only a beaten athlete but a broken man.

Of course he was redeemed, both in Moscow and four years later in Los Angeles, when he ran beautifully for his second gold medal and then waved a reproving finger at the press benches where he had been largely written off after illness and training difficulties. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times said that Coe was the young Lord Byron of the track, a poet athlete who found a new dimension. It was a nice line, of course, but it wasn’t true.

The future Lord Coe wasn’t a poet he was a street fighter of the most formidable determination. So, we saw this week, was the figure skater from a little town near choking with pride. She did it while honoring her lost mother and producing the best of herself. Sebastian Coe saw this with a special intensity.

So let the hockey men thrill the nation, but not at any price – and least of all the great prize of these Olympics, the bronze medal of Joannie Rochette.

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