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Friday, September 22, 2000

Gill's modesty is silver-lined

SYDNEY -- Nicolas Gill would probably prefer that this story be about someone else.

He doesn't care to be a national hero.

He doesn't crave attention. He doesn't mind that his sport doesn't interest you. He isn't taking his Olympic silver medal on tour, waving to the cameras, and saying he's going to Disneyland.

For most Canadians, and for almost every member of the Canadian Olympic team here, the first silver medal of the Games would be and should be reason enough to celebrate.

For Nicolas Gill, it meant something else. It meant he didn't win the 100-kilo judo competition.

"The main reason you're here is to win," said Gill, after picking up his second Olympic medal following his judo bronze from Barcelona. He may wear Canada's colours and may live in Canada, but when the lights come on, it isn't Canada doing the fighting for him. It's some world class judoka he's against.

And he's on his own. The way he's used to being as Canada's most accomplished star of judo. The athlete nobody knows until the Games begin and others begin to measure his worth.

"There's a lot to be said for doing a sport that people don't care about," Gill said in a lengthy interview after winning his silver medal Thursday night. "I ask myself why I'm in this sport and I think, it's a natural for me. It's what I do best.

"You know, judo is a complicated sport for North American culture. A lot of judo's terminology is Japanese but it's all very simple, really. It's what kids do in the backyard playing around. They don't know it but they're doing judo. Everybody likes to fight."

You look at Nicolas Gill and you know he's been fighting all his life. His ears are large and gnarled and look like they've been turned inside out and back again. His face is in need of a shave. His arms look like two-by-fours with hair.

He isn't just another pretty face on the Canadian team.

But in this Olympics gone wrong for Canada, there is something oh so admirable about him. How he stands up and is accountable for himself.

How he accepts victory and nothing less. How he isn't here to blame a lack of funding or a lack of recognition or a lack of coaching or anything on anyone.

He is doing what Joanne Malar and Tanya Dubnicoff and so many other Canadians couldn't do. He put a lousy performance from the Atlanta Olympics behind him and found a way to make this, in his words, a good moment.

"Atlanta was one of the bad souvenirs of my career," said Gill, who finished seventh in 1996. Why he finished seventh is not something he makes excuses for. But others will for him, others who know the truth.

"A lot of inaccurate things were said about him after Atlanta," said Louis Jani, the Canadian team leader. "People said things and wrote things who didn't know the story. He was in the wrong weight class. He couldn't keep his weight down. You try and do this sport when you have no strength and you can't. He didn't have the strength to compete."

He had the strength Thursday to get to the gold medal match at Exhibition Hall against Kosei Inoue of Japan. "That guy is almost an extra-terrestrial at judo," said Jani. "He's from another planet. Nicolas is the champion of the rest of the world. This guy's in a world by himself."

But Nicolas Gill would never say that. That's an excuse. That's for other people, other athletes. The medal he won Thursday was his fifth at either an Olympic or world championship. That makes the Montrealer just about the most accomplished Canadian athlete on the world stage.

"I don't do this for the attention," said Gill, the 28-year-old judoka. "If people are interested, great. If not, that doesn't change anything for me, except my bank account."