Gold for our guy!Edmonton's O'Neill stands atop podium in floor exercise; feat overshadowed by judges' cash controversy
By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- When you see a pile of cash on a table to pay off the judges and an unknown Canadian wins an out-of-nowhere gold medal in gymnastics, should you be suspicous?
It happened here yesterday as Canada won gold and the judges were paid off in cold cash. It could only happen at the XIV Pan-American Games.
Brandon O'Neill, a jockey-sized red-head from Edmonton, won Canada's first gold at these Games here yesterday. And that was real, cold, hard cash, U.S. currency, on the table for the judges.
It worked this way. The judges hadn't been paid their per diems or reimbursed for their airfare from the local organizing committee. So they refused to judge until they saw the cash.
That held up the start of competition. The judges then decided to work the first three events of the men's finals to give the organizers time to rustle up the loot.
"There was a no pay, no play situation,'' explained Canadian judge David Lockington of Port Hope, Ont.
"This was not a responsible way to treat officials, especially ones who are volunteering. At least half a dozen judges had paid their own way to come here, expecting to be reimbursed. The money is not here.''
Then it showed up. Cash on the barrelhead.
Raymond Heiderich of Calgary, one of the six head judges, said most of the money involved was $245 US per judge in per diem.
"That might not seem like a lot to you and me. But for the Central and South American judges ... they can't afford to go home without that money. And they told us it has happened before down here, and that if you don't get it before the end of competition, you'll never get it.
"For the Cuban judge it meant finishing his roof on his house, something he has to use the money to pay for when he goes back home. An amount of $245 US is a lot of money in Cuba. And most of these judges are not being paid from their normal jobs while they are here.''
MAYBE A BIGGER STORY
There may be a bigger story here. Gymnastics was one of the first events of these Games to come to a conclusion yesterday. Will this happen in every sport? The gymnastics judges worked the first three events. And then the competition experienced a long delay.
"Finally we saw the cash,'' said Heiderich. "Finally we saw the money put on a table. A big pile of it. This is a first.''
So was O'Neill's gold.
Usually it takes about three or four hours for Canada to win its first gold at a Pan-Am Games. Here it took five days.
"I didn't think about it,'' he said.
"I didn't want to think about it being Canada's first gold. I didn't want to get my hopes up,'' added the 18-year-old. "It's pretty amazing. For sure, it's my biggest success until now.
"I was just glad to get through it. My legs were really shaking. I was really nervous. I definitely came here thinking medal, but I wasn't thinking gold. I was going against a few pretty tough competitors,'' said the athlete you'd guess first to be a bantamweight boxer.
"It's special to win Canada's first gold. But I don't know what it means. Gymnastics is the first event of the Games. Maybe if I won it later on it would mean a bit more to me that way.
"I was just happy to get the gold for gymnastics. To me the most important thing wasn't the first gold for Canada, it's a gold for Canadian gymnastics. I wanted to get men's gymnastics in Canada back on the map. And I wanted to get my name out so people have heard of me. All my friends and family will be thrilled.''
It's a payoff, he said, for his grandmother who got him into the sport at age three.
"She just liked gymnastics, I guess,'' he said.
SOME FRIENDLY JOKES
The best part, he said, is with his friends.
"My friends make a lot of jokes about me, competing in tights and stuff. But it's all in good fun. A lot of them are hockey players,'' said the kid who plays a little road hockey with them.
O'Neill said he almost quit when he was 14 when a couple of his gymnastic friends did. But coaches convinced him he could be something.
"I guess I was just lucky I didn't.''
Coach Jun Chen of the Capital City Gym Club said O'Neill has Olympic-podium potential.
"He's 18. Usually the peak for a male gymnast is between 20 and 24. He's a specialist. He's very good on the floor. He has the potential to win a medal on the floor at the Olympics.''
O'Neill said he knew all about what was going on with the judges, but he didn't let it bother him.
"The judges were kind of striking,'' he said. "They didn't get paid.''
Money, with his sport, is a factor for the Pan-Am experience of the Edmonton gold-medal winner, too.
He's going home today.
Not because he wants to.
"It would have been nice to stay a few more days,'' he said.