Athletes must earn their Olympic spot

By ALISON KORN, Special to QMI Agency

This was not the best way to repay the karma gods.

Four years ago, fate smiled on the Canadian cross-country ski team as Sara Renner broke her ski pole and was handed a replacement by a Norwegian coach, enabling her to finish and win silver – ahead of Norway. Today, the Canadian team is in the public-relations doghouse for including blind skier Brian McKeever on the squad, but not letting him race.

That raises the question: can the Olympic spirit co-exist with medal mania? Not this time. And athletes wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Amateur sport isn’t a charity,” said Duff Gibson, the Olympic gold medallist in skeleton in 2006, who writes a blog on fair play. “What is so exciting about his story is the possibility that a Paralympian had the potential to make and compete for the able-bodied Olympic team. The story is not that someone was going to give the blind kid a chance, it was that he legitimately earned a spot.”

Yes, McKeever earned a spot, but there was never a guarantee he would race. There are only four spots but the team took five guys to the Olympics. The four other guys have had great results so far in Vancouver, including a fourth in the team sprint. So they got the start Sunday.

That seems fair – but you can’t blame the public and media for feeling hoodwinked. McKeever’s nomination to the Olympic team last month was announced with major fanfare, as the first winter athlete to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics in the same year. He’s been determined to show there isn’t a large gap between able-bodied and disabled athletes.

“It’s important for people to know the Paralympics is as high as it gets,” McKeever said in January. “It is the Olympic Games for people with physical disabilities, and I hope people will realize through my story the gap is not that big. Just because somebody has a disability doesn’t mean they are not training hard or are extremely fit.”

In promoting him as a trailblazer, without acknowledging the possibility he might not race, McKeever’s federation has let him down. The fact he’s so crushed by the coach’s decision shows a lack of communication in the group. Selection is supposed to be open, fair and transparent. If the team hierarchy wasn’t clear to everyone involved, that’s a blunder.

McKeever said this weekend he always knew there was a chance he wouldn’t race, though he believes he’s as good as the others.

“I think I had that ability,” he said. “I was prepared, I was ready to go.”

McKeever is one of Canada’s most-decorated athletes, with a total of seven medals, including four gold, two silver, and one bronze won at the 2002 and 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. In 2005, he was the Canadian national champion, and in 2007, he earned the top Canadian result in an able-bodied world championship.

McKeever has less than 10% functional vision. His brother, Robin, acts as his guide for Para-Nordic events. When competing in those races, McKeever skis alone by studying the course and committing it to memory.

The silver lining in all this, if there is one, may be that it sparks more interest in the Paralympics in Vancouver in March – when McKeever will compete. Guaranteed.

“My heart just breaks for him but I have a hell of a lot of respect for him,” Gibson said. “In terms of how you measure a person, he has more character than most and is showing it right now.”

alison_korn@hotmail.com

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