BEIJING - Donovan Bailey remembers when running at the Olympics didn’t only mean attempting to become the world’s fastest man, but also swiftly eluding the crush of media and fans from around the world.
How things have changed for Canadian sprinters.
You would be hard-pressed to recognize the lone athlete we will have competing in a 100-metre dash at the brilliant Bird’s Nest Stadium, let alone name Anson Henry, who would appear overmatched against the lightning-quick competition.
“It’s sad to see how far it has dropped off,” said Bailey, who is here as a track and field analyst for CBC. “Absolutely I’m not suprised. The culture surrounding track and field and surrounding sport in this country is still about participation as opposed to preparing to win.
“I was never like that when I ran. Never.”
No, he wasn’t. Nor were the two guys who starred before and after him, Ben Johnson and Bruny Surin. All three were competitive with the Americans and the Jamaicans and attracted world-wide attention as a result. Their legacy and success made Canada a big story, key actors in what is always the signature event of the Summer Games.
We were once pretty good in swimming, as well, back in the days of Alex Baumann, Victor Davis and Mark Tewksbury. In fact, despite the decades-long slump, it is in those two high-profile sports that Canada has won its most Summer Olympic medals - 51 in track and field to 39 in swimming.
That success can partially be attributed to the fact that both sports have been around for so long. But how alarming should it be that Canada hasn’t won a medal in track since Bailey won gold in Atlanta in 1996 and was also part of the winning 4x100 metre relay team?
Worse, in Athens four years ago, Canadian athletes were kept off the podium in both sports, the first time no Canadian swimmer won a medal since 1964.
Both programs have worked hard at rebuilding since, but each will be tested to return to the podium here.
In track, which doesn’t get rolling until the second week of the Games, Tyler Christopher (400 metres) and Gary Reed (800 metres) are the reigning world indoor champions. But with much of their major competition sitting out the indoor event, they are far from a sure thing here.
That said, a fifth in most track events trumps a medal in a lot of fringe sports, largely because of the depth of competition from around the globe. It is part of the reason that Bailey and Johnson were such massive stars in their day.
Swimming, which gets under way the morning after the fireworks from Friday’s opening ceremony die down, was in equally bleak shape following Athens. Since 1996, when Tewksbury retired, we have one just a silver and a bronze.
Swimming Canada head coach Pierre Lafontaine, a Quebecer who had success running Australia’s elite programs, was brought back to rebuild after the 2004 Games and his enthusiasm has that process off to a good start. B.C.’s Brent Hayden is the reigning world champion in the 100-metre freestyle and the anchor of a relay team that also has an outside shot at a medal here and up and comers such as Julia Wilkinson, who will compete in six events, hold promise for the future…
“Beijing is a great thought, we really can’t worry about (looking) back,” Lafontaine said recently. “The really good thing about Athens is the learned lesson. The more I look back to 2004, the more I can smile because we’re better for it.”
If both sports seem to be on the improve performance-wise, Bailey believes more is needed. Specifically, change has to come not just in coaching and athlete development but in attitude, something he had plenty of when he was tearing up tracks around the world.
“Everyone thought of me as being very ‘American’ in the way I carried myself because my expectations were to win,” Bailey said. “That was apparently un-Canadian. Apparently we’re only supposed to have that in hockey.
“I prepared myself to do well. I understood what my ability was and what my capability was. Now it seems (Canadians) are focussed on just being an Olympian. It’s a massive difference between being an Olympian and an Olympic medallist and another massive difference in being an Olympic champion.”
Low expectations for swim team
Pierre Lafontaine, the fiery new CEO and head coach of Swimming Canada, rarely lacks enthusiasm.
But he’s been around the pool long enough to temper that gusto when it comes to predictions for a team that is early in its rebuilding phase.
“We have simple goals for our team,” Lafontaine said Tuesday after Canada’s first training session at the National Aquatics Centre. “Our goal is to qualify all six relays into the finals. We have the ability to do it.
“It would disappoint me if we were not in the top five of any event and not knocking on doors.”
That said, Lafontaine knows the shakeup at Swimming Canada, which began in 2005, has too much water to make up for these Games. The team’s stated goal is to win one medal here and three at the 2012 Games in London.
“I can’t control the Aussies, I can’t control the USA,” said Lafontaine, who took over the senior position at Swimming Canada after a successful run at the helm of the Australian program.
“But you know what? ‘Bring it on.’
“I want my swimmers to stand on the blocks and feel like they belong there.”
As for Brent Hayden, the reigning world champion in the men’s 100-metre freestyle, Lafontaine is equally cautious.
“The world of swimming has changed over the last six months,” he said. “The 100 metres is an interesting event . . . our strategy is to have a strong team and Brent Hayden is part of that team.”