July 21, 2012
Manitoba Olympic athletes on the riseAfter dark days of '04 and '08, more 'Toba athletes are heading to Olys
By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency
WINNIPEG - Call it the dark days of Manitoba’s Olympic history.
The last two Summer Games our province basically fell off the world map, sending an embarrassing two athletes to Beijing four years ago, three to Athens in 2004.
We had become known as a province that could produce speed skaters and little else.
“It was a real wakeup call for a lot of us, to be honest,” Randy Anderson, general manager of the local branch of the Canadian Sport Centre, which provides services to elite athletes, told the Winnipeg Sun. “People don’t like hearing this. We weren’t keeping pace with the rest of the country in terms of the servicing that was being provided to athletes and coaches.”
If it’s true you have to hit rock-bottom before you realize you have a problem, the local amateur sports community was there, in the gutter, holding out its tin cup.
In order to ask for help, it first had to help itself.
“So we took it upon ourselves, did a bit of navel-gazing or some introspection following those Games,” Anderson said. “And said, ‘What do we need to do differently?’ ”
What they did was take their cue from the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Own the Podium program, and began targeting athletes with Olympic, and medal, potential. With the help of governments and their own fundraising, they started spending more and spending smarter.
Elite athletes were given better access to strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, sports psychologists, sports medicine experts and athletic therapists.
The result, Manitoba is trending up.
Seven have made it to London this summer, a much more palatable number.
The number can be a bit deceiving, as skater turned cyclist Clara Hughes hasn’t lived here for years, and soccer player Chelsea Stewart’s main claim to Manitoba fame was being born in the Pas (she never did come up through the local system).
But no matter how you slice it, seven beats the heck out of two or three.
The target, though, is higher.
Since Manitoba makes up roughly three per cent of the country’s population, about three per cent of Canada’s Olympic Teams should be produced here, the thinking goes.
“We shouldn’t be expecting 25 to 30 Manitobans to make the Olympic team, that’s just not realistic,” Anderson said. “But somewhere in that three percent mark, like 10, 12 is a realistic contribution from the sport community, here. And in that we’re hopeful one or two or three of those can medal, which then contributes towards the Canadian objective.
“We’re on track. 2016 will be the real measuring stick. This has been a four or five-year project.”
The most athletes Manitoba has produced for a recent Summer Games is 16, for Atlanta, 1996.
The number, though, can be skewed when the U.S. is the host, allowing Canada better opportunities to qualify teams like women’s volleyball, a sport Manitobans excel at.
Another blip was Sydney in 2000, when 15 Manitobans qualified.
Anderson points out the Canadian team was unusually large that year (nearly 400). Plus, the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg may have created an immediate local boost.
Long-term, people like Anderson say we’re in much better shape, thanks to improving facilities like the Active Living Centre, which will replace the infamous Gritty Grotto at the University of Manitoba, home to Anderson’s Canadian Sport Centre.
Everything from the new stadium to the Human Rights Museum, even the return of the NHL, has helped change the local climate.
“It’s just put a different feel on this community,” is how Anderson puts it. “The ripple effects are seen everywhere. I just sense there’s a different feel... and maybe a willingness to take a few more risks.
“We got left behind. But we’re catching up.”
Made in Manitoba medals