SEARCH 2000 Games

Friday, September 24, 2000
PROFILE: Alexander Jeltkov
Canadian gymnasts drawing viewers


Canada has failed to win a medal in only three of the sports contested at every Summer Olympics since 1900.

And gymnastics could have the ignominy to itself after the 2000 Games in Sydney, given that water polo now will feature a women's competition -- an event in which Canada has a chance. And fencer Sherraine Schalm is considered a medal threat.

Gymnastics? How is it that a sport so widely practised, mainstream and capable of drawing among the largest television audiences during the Games remains a sport unable to draw Canadians to the podium?

Curtis Hibbert, whose sixth in the parallel bars at Seoul in 1988 remains Canada's best individual Olympic gymnastics showing, thinks the root of the problem lies in the fact his sport has been dropped from high schools and universities in this country.

"Women have always relied more on the club system," Hibbert said. "But even there, kids no longer are getting exposure to the sport. It was never great, but we've rotted the base so much that there are no new kids coming up."

Such an assessment may come as a surprise, especially as the national team heads to the world championships and Olympic qualifier starting Oct. 8 in Beijing on a bit of a high after the Pan American Games this summer.

Yvonne Tousek, who flew to China this past week along with the rest of the Pan Am champion women's team, wants to "remain realistic. Our team has to finish in the top 12 to qualify for Sydney.

"What was so fun about the Pan Ams is we went in without expectations," said Tousek, 19, of Cambridge.

Truth be told, the team victory came against the United States' B squad, but it remains Canada's first gold in the event since 1979 and it comes as the gymnastics team battles a financial crunch that prevents it from attending most important meets. The team's annual funding from Sport Canada is roughly $440,000, less than half what it was in 1992.

"It's a lot like skating," said Tousek, who qualified for Atlanta as an individual and is the only woman on the team with Olympic experience. "You have to have exposure and make yourself known to the judges. Then you can start expecting the marks."

Tousek isn't saying that's the only reason Canada has struggled. "But it's a big factor, that and team building. We now have a great coach (Andrei Rodionenko, who guided Soviet Union powerhouse teams during the 1980s). He has organized a lot of great training camps for us. We have some great young talents. Michelle Conway (of Toronto) is a real sparkplug. We have a sense of team for the first time in years, but there is a lot of building to be done before we can talk confidently about the Olympics or medals."


Men's coach Masaki Naosaki also is a proponent of a centralized team approach, something he borrowed from the success of the national rowing team.

Naosaki, speaking from Fredericton, where the men have been based since 1997, called the centralization plan "a sacrifice and commitment, but it is paying off."

"I won't say we will finish in the top 12 (and earn a team berth for Sydney), but things are improving," he said, pointing to the Pan Am gold and silver won by former Russian Sasha Jeltkov of Montreal, and the bronze from Atlanta Olympic holdover Kris Burley of Truro, N.S.

Hibbert, who coaches kids in Mississauga, likes Naosaki's approach.

"It's like they're trying to get back to where we were in the late '80s," Hibbert said. "You have to work as a team to get anywhere, but unfortunately that requires money. And we really have to address the development of kids and the degree to which the whole national program is scattered."

As for winning Olympic medals, Tousek said: "We don't really talk much about it. But, yeah, I'm sure everybody would like to be the first."
Alexander Jeltkov in the news
Medal hope Sasha Zeltkov eliminated
Jeltkov, Shewfelt primed to win medals
Gymnasts strive to reach COA standards
Jeltkov in pictures
On horizontal bar
On the high bar
Pan-Am Gold
Chalking up his hands