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Sunday, September 24, 2000

It's grim, but there's hope

  SYDNEY -- The Canadian calamity at the Olympic Games can be sadly summarized now in one unfortunate calculation. We can't even win a tiebreaker here.

 Turns out, we suck at math too.

 Canada's wonderful basketball team, unbeaten in its first three games, looking to become the kind of story the country is desperately seeking, came up all of one point short when tiebreaking procedures were determined yesterday.

 One lousy stinking point short. Another free throw. Another layup. A last-second meaningless shot. That's the measurement it came down to for the Canadian team.

 The kind of measurement this whole Olympic team has been missing since these Games began.

 There is still another game to be played and there are still other results to consider, but the assumption is the one-point difference, after Canada lost to Russia by 18 points, cost them whatever medal hopes they had.

 Had they lost by 17 instead of 18 -- it really does come down to that tiny margin -- Canada would have been in excellent position to play for an unlikely medal in an Olympics with far too few unlikely Canadian stories.

 Here's the rub. Assuming Canada loses to unbeaten Yugoslavia and assuming Australia beats Spain on Monday here, Canada, Australia and Russia would all end up 3-and-2 in the basketball round robin. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head matchups.

 Canada beat Australia. Australia beat Russia. Russia beat Canada.

 It was then time to go to the calculators. The math that the Canadian coaching staff needed to be more aware of went against them, pushing the Canadian team to fourth place in its pool -- again assuming a loss to Yugoslavia.

 That means the playoff round would bring a match against Vince Carter and his American friends.

 That means this very happy story is about to have a very Canadian ending here.

 The kind of ending this team didn't deserve. The kind of ending that has been too familiar at these Olympics gone wrong.

 The first week of the Games could not have been more disappointing for Canadians. The glamour boys, Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey, tapped out. The rowers, who have carried the ball for Canadian sport in the past three Olympics, came up nearly empty. The cycling names, Tanya Dubnicoff and Alison Sydor, were never close to the podium.

 Only Nicolas Gill, Karen Cockburn and Curtis Myden performed to expectations. And only Simon Whitfield, the gold medallist, came, like the basketball team, out of nowhere to shock these Games.

 And while athletes will scream for more funding and many question the attitude of Canadian athletes here, I think there is a point that almost everyone is missing when it comes to the majority of Olympic sports.

 Why should Canadians be competitive in most of these sports?

 How many kids do you know who swim competitively? How many kids do you know who row competitively? How many kids do you know who run track and field other than once a year in a school meet? How many kids do you know who cycle competitively? How many kids do you know who box competitively?

 Run through the Olympic sports, one by one, and then think of your neighbourhood, think of how sports develop, think of where a pool of athletes come from? If kids aren't involved in these sports, then who becomes the Olympic athletes of the future?

 By that logic, Canada isn't tapping out at these Games. Quite the opposite. With a talent pool so extraordinarily thin, it's remarkable we can field as many Top 8 performances as you will find in these Games.

 That's not making an excuse for the Canadian performance. Just offering an explanation. There are still those exasperating Canadian athletes who don't know how to get it out of themselves when it matters most, but then there are Curtis Myden and Gill and my favourite Canadian here, the astounding Steve Nash, who leave nothing but themselves in their sport and remain so very Olympian.

 Canada has one gold, one silver and four bronze medals so far. By my unscientific and unofficial count, there are nine solid medal shots over the final eight days here. If I'm counting right, that could put Canada with 15 medals -- more than Seoul, Montreal, Munich, Mexico City or Tokyo. Just four fewer than in Barcelona in 1992.

 Not the disaster everyone is talking about. Just not what we have come to expect.