Mon, September 23, 2013

Big problems in big Olympic events for Canada

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


Where have all of Canada's Donovan Bailey-types gone? (IAN KUCERAK/QMI Agency)


LONDON - They can be seen as both simple and spectacular, the showstopper events of any Summer Olympics.

In attendance and attention, nothing beats track and field and swimming, the two sports that respectively will award the most medals here, combining for 81 individual competitions.

Get there fastest, throw it farther, jump higher: It’s as elementary as sport can get.

For a third consecutive Olympics, however, Canadian athletes are likely to leave both the Olympic Stadium and Aquatic Centre with such limited success that it will seriously cramp the Canadian Olympic Committee’s goal of finishing top 12 in the overall medal count.


Think you know how to improve Canada's showing at the Summer Olympics? Send out a tweet with the hashtag #canadafail

The longer the drought in the two big-ticket competitions continues, the more difficult it becomes for Canada be an elite nation in Summer Games.

“In order for us to be a world leader in high-performance sports, big sports like these two need to be firing on all cylinders,” Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Canada’s Own The Podium, acknowledged to QMI Agency in an interview. “We are working close with (Swimming Canada and Athletics Canada) to develop that high-performance plan and a pool of potential podium athletes that delivers more medals.”

In both swimming and track (known as athletics in the Olympic jargon), Canada was once a productive nation. In fact, with 51 total medals in athletics and 40 in swimming, they have yielded the country by far its most success in the summer.

Unfortunately, such success is starting to feel like ancient history.

Remember when we were a nation of sprinters like Donovan Bailey and Ben Johnson (for good and for evil) and the world knew us for them? Or in the pool where we had stars like Alex Baumann, Victor Davis and this year’s chef de mission, Mark Tewksbury?

Well, since the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, Canada has won just one medal in each — hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep’s bronze in Beijing and swimmer Ryan Cochrane’s bronze in the men’s 1,500-metre freestyle at the same Games. In track, Lopes-Schliep’s triumph was the first medal since the Atlanta Games and the Whitby, Ont., hurdler isn’t even here after failing to qualify at the Canadian trials last month.

“The Summer Olympics are quite a different beast than the Winter because of depth — field sizes and the number of nations that compete,” Merklinger said. “That’s been a challenge for Canada. But with funding recommendations and focus on those sports, we have seen a rise in podium potential.”

Don’t expect it to yield too much at these Games, however.

Swimming Canada has targeted three medals, but three days into the meet, that is looking considerably optimistic. Cochrane is expected to get one again when he races in the 1,500 on the weekend and it wouldn’t be a shock to upgrade his bronze from four years ago. One of Canada’s more productive swimmers over the past six years, Brent Hayden, is considered a fringe contender in the men’s 100-metre freestyle later this week, but four years ago he failed to qualify for the final. There is a boatload of younger swimmers recording personal bests, but those are all meant to be results in Rio, four years down the Olympic highway.

At athletics, which gets under way Friday, prospects are similarly light. Shot putter Dylan Armstrong, who missed bronze by a mere centimetre in China, has a big shot while heptathlete Jessica Zelinka could threaten. Athletics Canada head coach Alex Gardiner told the QMI Agency on Monday that his group is hoping for two medals, acknowledging that getting one is “a must.”

As for the future, such meagre totals won’t be tolerated as the 45-member team made up of 37 Olympic rookies will be expected to produce.

“I would be embarrassed if we couldn’t deliver three to five medals next time,” Gardiner said, when reminded of the struggles over the past several Olympics. “I think our talent pool is wider than it’s been in a while.

“It takes a little bit of everything. The fact of the matter is you have to have exceptional coaching, and that means from people that have had success internationally. You need to have exceptional athletes that are driven to compete at this level and you have to provide them with the resources.”

Almost incredibly, until Gardiner returned to Athletics Canada for these Games, the job was a volunteer position, hardly the model to develop in a sport so deep more than 200 nations have athletes competing. Since returning in 2009, Gardiner has attempted to deepen the infrastructure and technical resources around the team.

Far from an apologist, Gardiner says it is imperative that Armstrong and Zelinka not only challenge here, but produce results confirming the program is on course.

“We really need to compete the job with Dylan and Jessica,” Gardiner said. “We need to do everything we can to ensure the athletes have a better cushion for success.”

So if not now, when? Let’s just say Own The Podium has its target well beyond the next two weeks.

“The intention now is on investing deeper,” Merklinger said. “We’re working with sports eight years out. What characteristics does an athlete need to have? What do they need to look like? Can we see a gold medal profile?

“It is what you have to do to be competitive and to embrace a culture of excellence and podium performances.”

CAN CANADA FINISH IN TOP 12?

Canada's stated Summer Games goal of finishing among the top 12 medal-winning countries sounds bold -- but the numbers suggest it's not exactly unrealistic.

While we sure could use dual citizen Missy Franklin -- she's powering through the London pools to gold for the U.S. instead of us -- it's clear Canada must start producing more medal contenders in the swimming and track events if we're to meet the Canadian Olympic Committee's top-12 standard.

Canada has averaged roughly 16 medals over the past four Summer Games. And considering our best-ever summer showing (barring the boycotted '84 Games in L.A.) was Atlanta in 1996, when we finished 11th with 22 medals, we have little experience among the Summer Olympics' heavy hitters.

But to put the Canadian goal into better perspective, here are the 12th-place countries and how many medals each won at Summer Olympics over the past 20 years:

- 2008: Cuba (24 medals)

- 2004: Ukraine (23 medals)

- 1996: Hungary (21 medals)

- 1992: Great Britain (20 medals)

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @longleysunsport