Olympics

London 2012: Canada's Bronzed Olympic Games

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CTVOlympics.ca
8/12/2012 7:50:40 PM
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These were not the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, but they were never going to be.

The field in summer sports is so much deeper – the competition, so much tougher - and quite simply, Canada does not have the same history of sporting achievement away from ice and snow.

The cheering and flag waving would never measure up; Canada's athletes were an ocean away, and the time difference meant too many medals were won before Canadians at home could pour their morning coffee. Impromptu street parties and beer-soaked parades were out of the question.

Instead, the defining element of these Games was something else: 18 medals; one gold, five silver and 12 bronze.

One dozen bronze. Canada has never before earned this many bronze medals at a single, non-boycotted Olympic competition – it has never come close.

For Canada, London 2012 was not about owning the podium or winning the games. Rather, the best-remembered stories will be of Canadians bouncing back, of athletes taking the hardest knocks but fighting to the end anyway. So often the choice was to either come away with nothing, or to come away bloodied, bruised and possibly bronzed. Canadians almost always chose the latter.

When questionable officiating was blamed for the Canadian soccer team's crushing semi-final loss to the United States, there were those who said that match would remain the most memorable moment of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The athletes seemed broken, and who could blame them? Labelled whiners and sore losers by the international press, their final Olympic ticket was to the wrong game and their medal, no longer guaranteed.

But in team sports, winners take gold, and losers settle for silver. Bronze is captured and won.

Canada's women did not just play through their bronze-medal game against France; they fought. By the second half, the players were exhausted. Again and again, French forwards shot the ball on a seemingly clear course to the Canadian net, only to find a post, crossbar or leg in the way. Through sheer will and a fair amount of luck, Canada kept the game scoreless.

In the end, it was not Sidney Crosby's golden goal, but Diana Matheson's bronzed boot that erased the disappointment of their semi-final loss.

In the final minutes of injury time, the Canadian midfielder found herself in the right place at the right time, saw the ball in front of her, and scored.

"We were absolutely exhausted, but we battled," team captain Christine Sinclair would tell a CTV reporter. "And that's what this team does. We caught a few lucky breaks, obviously, but to win you need that, occasionally."

Again and again, the same story of Canadian tenacity played itself out:

The men's eight rowers who finished last in their heat but advanced through the tiresome repechage round for silver; Brent Hayden, the 100-metre freestyle swimmer who made up for a disappointing 14th-place finish at Beijing 2008 to capture bronze at his final Olympic Games; Mark Oldershaw, the fifth member of his family to compete at an Olympic Games, suffered disappointment in 2008 but returned four years later to become the first Oldershaw to win an Olympic medal (it was, of course, bronze).

No, this was not Vancouver 2010; this wasn't even Beijing 2008, an Olympic Games that seemed draped in negativity as Canada was left waiting an agonizing week for its first medal. If London's Games have left a more positive taste in Canadian mouths, it is not because of the medal count.

Canada earned the same total number of medals this summer in Great Britain as it did four years ago in China, even if the nation did finish 13th in the overall medal count, compared to 15th in Beijing.

But while O Canada played three times in 2008 - over wrestling, men's eights rowing and equestrian jumping podiums - Canada's athletes will come away from London with just one gold medal: Rosie MacLennan's, in trampoline.

As much as Canadians will remember MacLennan's golden routine, hers is not the only performance worthy of celebration - this much was suggested when Olympic fans on Twitter pushed for Sinclair's nomination as Closing Ceremony flagbearer, and was confirmed when the Canadian Olympic Committee later put the flag in the soccer forward's hands.

And what about Paula Findlay, the 23-year-old redhead whose hip injury left her unable to sufficiently train for her first Olympic Games? She competed in the triathlon anyway. A medal hopeful after she won the 2010 Hyde Park race during her first season on the senior international scene, it quickly became apparent that she would not repeat with an Olympic medal on the line.

She crossed the finish line in dead last, tears streaming down her face and laboured breathing made even worse by the sobs wracking her chest.

It was such a heartbreaking image. But although Canadians felt so much sadness, so much empathy for the young woman from Edmonton, they felt even more pride.

Who would have kept going, in similar circumstances? Would you have finished your 54-kilometre race? Maybe, but as likely not. After years of training and months of frustrating and painful rehabilitation, Findlay did. And she did it wearing the maple leaf.

There was also Alexandre Despatie, the veteran diver from Laval, Que., who placed 11th at his final Olympic Games. He may have entered these Games as a reigning two-time Olympic silver medallist, but calling the 27-year-old's finish "a disappointment" would be a gross injustice.

Despatie, a three-time world champion, pushed through an excruciating 2011 year just to get to these Games. Coming back from a knee injury, he was already in a race against time when he hit his head on the diving board during a 2012 training session in Spain. Two months out from the Olympic Opening Ceremony, his first question to hospital doctors was "When can I dive again?"

"That's how special the Olympics are," Despatie would later tell CTV host Brian Williams. "No matter what, we want to be here. I could have very well said 'No, I'm going to sit this one out and stay home.' But I wanted to be here, I wanted to compete in my fourth Olympic Games. As soon as the time frame was realistic, then there was no doubt. I was going to do everything to be here."

And finally, with wounds still so fresh and raw, the men's 4x100m relay team. Initially, following Saturday's race, the results board showed the Canadians had crossed the line third. But minutes later, new results replaced the old ones - this time, the word "Canada" was at the bottom of the list, next to a finite DQ.

One rogue step had cost Jared Connaughton, Gavin Smellie, Justyn Warner, and Oluseyi Smith Canada's first Olympic medal in the event since Atlanta 1996. Connaughton placed a foot on the line during his leg of the race and - just like that - Canada's 13th bronze medal was gone.

The sprinters were left stunned by the side of the track, and Smith sobbed into the same Canadian flag that had been wrapped around him in celebration, seconds earlier.

Their anguish was almost incommunicable, but later that same evening the sprinters travelled to the broadcasting centre to speak with Williams in studio. To a man, not one runner so much as hinted that the ruling was unfair.

"The 10 minutes or seven minutes that we thought we had [a medal]? That was the best possible feeling," Smith said, instead. "That's actually what doesn't make it so bad. Even though we don't have a medal, we're joking - we keep thinking about how awesome it was for those 10 minutes.

"So where do we go from here? We want to get that back and keep that feeling, next year in Moscow or at Commonwealths afterwards."

No, these were not the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. Canada's athletes will not march through the Closing Ceremony as the celebrated winners of the world's biggest sporting event.

But from Connaughton to Oldershaw to MacLennan and flagbearer Sinclair, they can return home with dignity, pride and their competitors' and compatriots' respect. And, if their performances in London are any indication, a burning desire to do better. Rio de Janeiro is just four years away.

Three Bronze medals for Canada (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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