Canadians resent being called losers
By NEIL STEVENS -- Canadian Press
SYDNEY -- Derek Porter gave it all he had in finishing fourth in the men's single sculls race of the Olympic rowing regatta.
Missing the podium was emotionally devastating to him. He was wiping tears from his face during post-race interviews.
He'd won Olympic gold in 1992 in Barcelona stroking the men's eight. In 1993, he become the first Canadian in more than 75 years to win the world single sculls championship. He won silver in the 1996 Olympic sculling race, and all he wanted to do was end his rowing career by winning another Olympic medal.
He was convinced he could do it, but it wasn't meant to be.
So why criticize him?
Criticize Canada's Olympic team, and you criticize Derek Porter, and that would be stupid and cruel.
Yet, there has been considerable angst back home over the team's low medal count at the 2000 Summer Games.
Take a step back.
It's fine and dandy to boo an NHL team stocked with millionaire players. Fans get that right when they buy tickets. But most competitors on Canada's 300-plus team in the Games of the Millennium are amateurs who have made huge personal sacrifices to be among the best in the world at the sport they love.
To boo boxer Scotty McIntosh, a substitute high school teacher, would be asinine -- whether he wins or loses his next match.
"That would be very unfortunate," rowing coach Al Morrow said when asked what his opinion is of those who criticize Canada's Olympians for lack of medals. "We all know deep down, having participated ourselves or having children who participate in sports, that there is more to sport than winning.
"To slag the small minority that even gets to the Olympics -- even to get to the Olympics is an incredible achievement -- is a disservice to them."
About one in 100,000 Canadians qualified for the Olympic team.
"Fourth is a tough place to be but I can't say that I'm angry about it," said Porter.
So why be angry at Porter and the others who didn't win medals?
"I can understand, on one level, there's a frustration because we want to perform well as a country and the athlete in the race is the one that determines the placing," said Emma Robinson, who with partner Theresa Luke finished fourth in women's rowing pairs. "I can see why the emotion is directed that way.
"But if people can understand the commitment it takes as an athlete . . . I mean, the last two years for me for seven minutes here in Sydney meant giving up school, moving across the country back and forth, and being away from my boyfriend and my family.
"Once people see it from that perspective, you know, I think they understand that we've tried our best. We didn't come here to lose. For the most part, the e-mails and messages I've been getting from home are from people who are behind us. They just say, 'Go for it. We're there with you."'
Boxer Mark Simmons goes to university, works in a liquor store on weekends, and is an Olympian.
Judoka Kim Ribble makes end meet by working at a Home Depot store that sponsors her. She broke her ankle in a bout last week, and continued fighting until she no longer could stand the pain and was carried off on a stretcher. She has a cast on her foot today, and she's afraid that losing the match will drop her far enough in her sport's rankings that her government funding would be decreased. How would she survive?
Government funding? That's can of worms.
The feds recently raised to $1,100 from an embarrassing $810 the monthly support cheque for world-class Canadian athletes. Even with the increase, they're still below poverty level.
If Canada doesn't want to provide even a poverty-level income to its Olympians, it shouldn't complain about a lack of medals.
Slag Porter for finishing fourth?
Knock Phil Graham for missing his men's rowing pairs final by seven-100ths of a second?
Here's a woman who had surgery to remove cancerous thyroid 18 months ago, who missed less than a week's training after chemotherapy so she could be in a position to give her best at these Games. She did that. She didn't win a medal, but is that a bad thing?
The endless workouts. Eating macaroni when the funding cheque is late arriving. Postponing career options to continue in the sport one loves.
Sailor Marty Essig drives to competitions around North America on his own hook.
Trampolinist Karen Cockburn couldn't get to all the meets she needs to attend to improve without help from her family, and a job to provide spending money. She won a bronze medal anyway.
Nobody has a foolproof explanation for the medal dropoff from Atlanta, where we won 22.
One good theory is that government funding cutbacks after Canada's poor showing in Seoul in 1988 are finally being felt.
"These things always come back to haunt you eight to 10 years later because a normal athlete takes from eight to 10 years to develop," says Morrow. "If we want to get back on track for 2004 and 2008, in rowing, the financial thing has to be addressed."
Likewise in other sports.
You only get what you pay for.
Yet, the athletes will always sacrifice.
Ever notice that most Olympians are single? Some are in their 30s but haven't committed to a relationship because they are too wrapped up in the sport they love.
Getting this far requires such a total commitment that a normal social life is all but impossible.
Blythe Hartley moved away from home before her Grade 12 year so she could concentrate on being the best diver in the world. She's not quite there but she's getting close.
"I was really, really happy in Vancouver," she said. "I lived such a normal life.
"I lived with my parents and I was surrounded by non-athletes, which was really happy. In Calgary, I trained a lot more and there's been a lot of focus on diving, which I needed to do to get here."
Diver Eryn Bulmer put her studies at Mount Royal College in Calgary on hold for year so she could prepare for the 2000 Games.
"That was a big thing I wrestled with last year," she explains. "It was really frustrating to see my friends graduating and moving on and getting excited about the next part of life but I realize this opportunity was over this week. I have my entire life to finish school."
Gymnast Emilie Fournier trained for years to get this far, and had to withdraw on the day of the opening ceremonies after hurting an ankle in practice.
Slag Canada's Olympic team and you ridicule Emilie Fournier.
Funny, but when they win, the system is working great. If they lose, it is called into question with gnashing of teeth.
Most Canadians understand all this. Others, well, they just don't get it.
Hold the applause, but pass the macaroni, please.