The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Medal drought?

Earlier this week, I stared in wonder as the final of the men's 4x100 freestyle swim unfolded before me. The broadcast feed includes a line showing the current world record distance. Of the eight teams involved, five finished in world record time: the United States, France, Australia, Italy, and Sweden. Canada, the sixth team, finished below the world record that had been shattered just the previous day (3:12.46). South Africa, the seventh, missed it only by 0.2 seconds, and even the very last team, Great Britain, missed it by only 0.4 seconds.

There could be only three medalists: yet that race held no one who lost. Every team swam faster than the Olympic record which had stood until the previous day. The final leg of the American swim, swum by the oldest member of the American team, became the fastest that distance has ever been swum (46.06), although only the first leg of the relay counts against the official 100 metre freestyle time: and that world record fell to Australian Eamon Sullivan (47.24). (Over the next two days, Sullivan and the French swimmer Alain Bernard would alternate in re-breaking that record.) All four continental records involved were broken during the heats, and then broken again in the finals. The difference between gold and silver was a breath, a glance, the wake along a rope, such a small fraction of a second that the unaided eye could never have caught it. Truly the French team director caught it best:
Alain is wounded. But I don't think that Alain lost the race. It's Lezak who won it.
- Claude Fauquet
This is the level of competition this year. World records are falling almost hourly in the pool, Olympic and continental and national records at every level: despite the morning finals, despite the heat, despite the air quality. Any other year dozens of Canadian performances would have been medal-level.

Not this year.

Again and again, Canada seems to be just on the wrong end of these records. It would have been an Olympic record, but for yesterday. Mike Brown would have won bronze in the men's 200 m breaststroke in what would have been Olympic time, but missed the medal by 0.09 seconds. Dylan Armstrong set a new national record for the men's shotput at 21.04 m, but missed bronze by a centimetre. National records and personal bests are collapsing, yet we just don't seem to be able to translate them over across that razor thin edge which holds us back from the medal podium. We are currently 56th in the world for medals: which is to say that although we have respectable performances, we have none.

Yet the Olympics are still young. Of over 300 medals, only a third have yet been finalised. The majority of sports are still working their way steadily through heats and matches. Athletics, with its 47 separate events, is only just getting started. A single gold medal will suddenly vault us up the standings to within the top thirty. Two will put us in the top fifteen -- and we won't end it there.

Respect what has already been accomplished. Anticipate what is to come. Don't write us off yet.

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