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Thursday, September 14, 2000

It's not just fun and Games
Canadian officials might say the Olympics are about more than medals, but the athletes know better: They're in Sydney to win

  There has long been a friendly rivalry on the battlefields of sport between Australia and Canada, undoubtedly a result of the two vibrant, young nations being cut from the same cloth, offspring of the once formidable British Empire.

 For years at Commonwealth Games, Australians and Canadians took turns winning the overall medal count, although in recent times, Australia has taken the upper hand, a trend that will be even more pronounced in Sydney.

 The Waltzing Matildas are expecting a record medal haul in front of their sports-mad compatriots. Olympic chief John Coates has boldly predicted 60 medals for his team, 19 more than in Atlanta, including a record 20 gold. Given the money invested in sport by the Australian government in the 1990s, particularly since Sydney was awarded the Olympic Games seven years ago, the fact that Australia is a summer-sport nation, and the luxury its athletes will have competing at home, the fans Down Under can expect good things from their troops.

 Canadian Olympic mandarins, on the other hand, refuse to predict anything, which is probably a sign unto itself.

 'INCREDIBLE PRESSURE'

 "Predicting medals puts incredible pressure on these kids," said Diane Jones Konihowski, Canadian team chef de mission. "One of our goals is to have a supportive, fun environment for them, because not every athlete is going to do well. Some of them are going to have disappointing experiences.

 "It's got to be about more than just the performance."

 A sweet sentiment, but the bottom line is, the athletes themselves care more about performing well than being given the opportunity to pet a koala bear at some nature reserve.

 "You definitely go down there to win," Canadian heavyweight boxer Mark Simmons said. "And the fun experience will come if you do well."

 The Canadian public, which foots most of the bill for the development of amateur athletes in this country, fully expects to see the Maple Leaf yanked up the flagpole on a regular basis. That's what it's all about. In Atlanta, Canadian athletes went to the podium 22 times -- a record for a non-boycotted Olympics. One can recall a British journalist, trying to make sense of his team's grim haul of one gold medal at the 1996 Games, asking a colleague from Toronto what the secret was to Canada's sporting success.

 How's that for a kick? In years past, Canadian teams were the brunt of jokes. You know: "How many Olympics does Canada have to host before it wins a gold medal?" (Two and counting).

 But with the success in Atlanta, and the even bigger success at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, where Canada finished fifth in the medal standings, the tide appeared to be turning. Most amateur-sport officials believe the Olympic success of the late 1990s to be a direct result of the increase in funding from the federal government during the 1970s and 1980s. This past decade, however, cutbacks have been the order of the day (about $30 million annually over the past 10 years), and the feeling heading toward Sydney is that the salad days of Canadian Olympic sport are long over, although those cuts have been eased somewhat in the past year under the leadership of Denis Coderre, the secretary of state for amateur sport.

 Unless, of course, Toronto is awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. As it was in Canada prior to the 1976 Montreal Games, the Australian government has spent loads of cash on amateur-sport programs leading up to its Olympics. Face it, sport is about politics and politicians of all stripes want to be associated with happy, smiling, winning athletes. If the Games are to be held at home, it's in the best interest of everyone that a strong team is entered. That provides a stimulus for increased government investment.

 "I've always regretted that we've had to bring international Games here as a way of getting of our government to spend money on domestic sport," said Bruce Kidd, head of the TO-Bid legacy and community enhancement committee and dean of physical education at the University of Toronto. "But I do know it works.

 FUNDING BOOST

 "Both the Montreal and 1988 Calgary Games stimulated federal, provincial and local sport development programs, not only in the regions where they were held, but right across the country."

 Indeed, because Canada failed to win gold in Montreal, the perception is that those Games were a failure for the home side. Not so. Team Canada placed 27th at the 1972 Munich Games in the overall medal standings compared to 10th overall in Montreal, and that count would have been higher if many of the east bloc nations weren't, as it has since been revealed, anabolically enriched.

 Which is not to say that the 309-member team being dispatched to the land of dingos, beer and crocs isn't a strong one. It is. With the International Olympic Committee adding more sports to the program while holding fast on the number of participants, just qualifying for the Games has become increasingly difficult.

 "People don't realize that," Simmons said. "They think just because you're the Canadian champion, you automatically go to the Games. That's not the way it is.

 "(Super-heavyweight) Artur Binkowski and myself had to beat out 42 countries in the Americas for two spots in the Olympic Games. That's almost as difficult as the Olympics."

 Canada's men's eights rowing team won the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and finished fourth in Atlanta. Only through sheer strength of conviction and preparation did the squad even qualify for Sydney, winning a last-minute qualifier in July in Lucerne, Switzerland.

 Many sports, particularly wrestling and gymnastics, have been dealt a double whammy, so to speak. Not only are there fewer spots open in Sydney, there are more countries to beat out for those placements. Wrestling in particular has been affected. Prior to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union used to send one super-squad of Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestlers to the Games. Now all the nations that made up the former Soviet Union send powerful teams to the Olympic qualifiers. As a result, middle-level powers, such as Canada, have qualified far fewer athletes for Sydney. Canada managed to qualify four wrestlers for these Games, including world champion Daniel Igali.

 As for how Canada will do, well, look for the veterans to come through with the goods, just not as many times as in Atlanta.

 Kayak star Caroline Brunet is a lock for at least one medal, possibly two. The track and field team, led by sprinters Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey and high-jump sensation Mark Boswell, should make a mark, although it would be too much to expect gold in the 100 metres and relay again.

 Canada's top team in Atlanta was the rowing squad, although the six medals captured four years ago will be very hard to match. World champions Emma Robinson and Theresa Luke have a solid shot in the pairs. Former world king Derek Porter, who captured a silver in Atlanta, has rounded solidly into form and recently finished second to New Zealand star Rob Waddell by about a second.

 "The quality of racing on the Canadian team will be higher than '96. But the competition has got better, too," said Lesley Thompson, coxswain on women's eight.

 Other medal contenders include divers Anne Montminy and Emilie Heymans in the 10-metre tower and Eryn Bulmer and Blythe Hartley on the springboard. The swim team, while likely to be swamped by water juggernauts Australia and the U.S., has three medal contenders in Joanne Malar, Curtis Myden and Marianne Limpert. Cyclists Alison Sydor, Tanya Dubnicoff and newcomer Genevieve Jeanson will be in the hunt, as will boxers Troy Amos-Ross and Mike Strange, wrestlers Igali and Gia Sissaouri, veteran judoka Nicolas Gill, sailor Richard Clarke and beach volleyballers John Child and Mark Heese.