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by Bruce Kidd
National pride in Canada's amateur athletes continued to mount. At the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Gaëtan Boucher of Ste. Foy, Quebec, won two speedskating golds and one bronze, while figure skater Brian Orser won silver in the men's singles. At the Summer Games in Los Angeles, aided by the Soviet bloc's 'payback' boycott, Canadians won a record 44 medals -- 10 gold, 18 silver and 16 bronze. Led by swimmer Alex Baumann, who smashed his world record in the 400-metre relay, Canadian athletes proved themselves fitting representatives of Canadian values. The Canadian champions were as gracious and articulate in their countless media interviews as they were athletically splendid.
The decision to award the 1988 Winter Olympic Games to Calgary provided further stimulus for national pride. Superbly organized, abounding with traditional western Canadian exuberant hospitality, the Calgary Games were judged 'best ever' by all participants, including the International Olympic Committee President, Juan Antonio Samaranch. The facilities and the financial legacy created by the Games provided the basis for a new national training centre, an approach that has proved so successful that it has been copied right across the country.
The 1988 Summer Games in Seoul brought Canada's greatest moment of shame -- Ben Johnson's disqualification for steroids after he had won the 100-metre championship. It was a devastating blow to a country that had always prided itself on its sporting values. The crisis -- and the agonizing royal commission hearings, think tanks and task forces that followed it -- led to a reassertion of the values of amateur sport. New organizations and programs were established to affirm these values, including the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which administers the toughest anti-doping policy in the world. Many athletes spoke out strongly in favour of these reforms.
The Canadian sports system appeared to do very well in the 1990s. At the Winter Olympics, downhill skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner, biathlete Myriam Bédard, and curler Sandra Schmirler along with numerous inspiring short- and long-track speedskating, figure-skating, and men's and women's ice hockey performances gave Canadians much to cheer about. In the Summer Games, swimmer Mark Tewksbury, rower Marnie McBean, sprinter Donovan Bailey, wrestler Daniel Igali and triathlete Simon Whitfield all raised the Canadian flag to the top of the victory mast. Canadians won a total of 22 medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, ranking 11th among a record 197 participating countries.
However, during the same period traditional rivals -- notably Australia and Great Britain -- took Canadian innovations and steadily improved upon them, while Canadian programs were cut back or eliminated altogether. When the difference between the podium and a lower-place finish is often a matter of centimetres, these factors are significant. Canadians won 14 medals in Sydney, the Australians 58. Not surprisingly, the Australians spent about four times as much as Canada did, giving their athletes and coaches better facilities, more extensive scientific and medical support, and much greater financial assistance, so that they do not have to find part-time employment to make ends meet. In the debate that followed the Sydney disappointments, most observers agreed that it was time for a new reinvestment in Canadian amateur sports. In response, the federal government has launched a new national policy initiative.
It remains to be seen how this initiative will move the Canadian Olympic sports ahead in the 21st century. But all observers agree: Canadian Olympic teams remain important symbols of citizenship and Canadian nationalism. Indeed, the level of their performance and the characteristics they display, express and reflect the spirit of the entire country.