After Rio 2016 Canadian Athletes Now Belong In Business Class, Not Economy
With more than one option, Canadian officials were in a quandary over who should carry the flag into the closing ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Would it be the 16-year old wunderkind Penny Oleksiak, who’d won a record four swimming medals— including a gold in the 100- metre freestyle?
Or should it be sprinter Andre DeGrasse, the 21-year-old sensation who’d gone shoulder-to-shoulder on the track with the immortal Usain Bolt and emerged with three medals of his own, including silver in the 200 metres?
What about high-jump gold medalist Derek Drouin? Or how about Evan Dunfee, a race waker who told the world he didn’t want any medal if it came on an appeal?
For a brief moment, there was talk of the most Canadian solution: Have all of them carry the flag at once. In the end, sanity prevailed, and Oleksiak, whose performances in the early days of the Games galvanized the Canadians in the Olympic Village, was chosen to carry the red-and-white maple leaf into a soggy Maracaña Stadium.
This moment of serendipity was not universal at the Summer Games. Other nations found Rio less than satisfying. The USA, winners of the medal count again, saw the sophomoric efforts of Ryan Lochte and pals stain the transcendent Michael Phelps who capped his unparalleled swimming career with 23 gold medals to reach a total of 28 medals for his career. Even another smashing basketball gold from their NBA stars did little to bring up the room.
The Irish saw their top IOC representatives hauled into police questioning on an alleged ticket-scalping scheme. The Russians, already depleted by mass suspensions of their stars for performance-enhancing drug use, were roundly booed by spectators and not a few fellow athletes.
And a couple of Mongolian wrestling coaches took it all off to protest a judging injustice. (http://www.espn.com/olympics/wrestling/story/_/id/17360008/mongolian-wrestling-coaches-strip-clothing-protest-official-call).
But for Canadians there wasn’t much to regret about the two weeks spent beside Copacabana. The previously powerful rowing and kayak teams won a single medal and will have some very bracing postmortems. Canada’s rising track program was dismayed by three fourth-place finishes on the final night of track— one spot from the medals being the most painful finishing spot at the Olympics. World champion pole vaulter Shawn Barber crashed out early in what was seen as a sure medal.
Those were few and far between as the young men and women of the team surpassed the COC’s own expectations for the Games with 22 medals in total. While there was much value in the argument that DeGrasse was Canada’s brightest star, Oleksiak’s largely unpredicted medal haul (the most for a single athlete in a Summer Games) made her the headliner for Team Canada.
A shy teenager in the body of a powerful woman, she now belongs to the ages for Canadians with her performance— one that can only make her fans wish the 2020 Games get here soon. The record number of medals was one thing. But in the fragile chemistry that governs even a 300-plus team of diverse athletes when a Games gets started, the value of her bold ascension can’t be understated.
Let’s face it, Canadians aren’t naturally disposed to being cock of the walk. They have their little dreams, of course, but gird themselves against disappointment with a genial sportsmanlike outlook. “After you” could be emblazoned on the national crest. While the country’s hockey players have taken a take-no-prisoners attitude, those in other sports haven’t always been as bloody minded about gold.
So when Oleksiak told her teammates that they belonged in the business class of the Olympics, not economy, it translated to many wearing the maple leaf. Not the least of whom was the lightning flash DeGrasse, who took top the challenge Oleksiak had laid down in Week One. It’s one thing to compete on an equal footing with someone like Bolt. It’s another thing it make it look like the most natural thing in the world.
That’s what DeGrasse did in his first Olympics. He clowned during races with Bolt, walked the track with an insouciance reminiscent of his mentor Donovan Bailey, and when Bolt eventually beat him he acted as if a few tweaks here and there might still have made a difference. Yes, he has the Canadian humility gene (see: Wayne Gretzky), but not so much that it suppresses his competitive fire.
If you still pine for the traditional Canadian response, however, there was Dunfee. His shot at a bronze was stopped by a late-race bumping incident with a Japanese opponent. Dunfee was then granted a bronze by judges who said the Japanese walker had interfered. Then, in one of those paradoxical IOC moments, the appeal was overturned and the B.C. walker was again left in that painful placing— fourth.
While the Mongolian wrestling coaches took a less restrained approach to seeming injustice, Dunfee issued a press release saying that bumping was just part of the game, and he didn’t want no stinkin’ medal if it was to be at the expense of his competitor. It might have been there most gracious thing anyone from any nation said the whole time in Rio. Semper venustus.
We’ll now have four years of the IOC acting like entitled prats before the Tokyo Games in 2020. It will be infuriating and exasperating to see the suits piggyback on the greatness of the past two weeks. But such was this Games for Canadians (capped by the Tragically Hip’s national farewell on Saturday) that we might have enough goodwill to get us to DeGrasse and Oleksiak and Dunfee and so many more in four years.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).