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Posted: August 14, 2004

Olympics: Worthy Canadian athletes left at home

This article was originally written for Friday's Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Regina Leader-Post

By Jason Warick

[-Warick dreams of representing Canada at the 2008 Olympic marathon. He’ll be glued to his TV for the next two weeks cheering on the Canadian team, but is angered by the exclusion of many of his deserving fellow athletes.}

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well." The Olympic Creed, 1908

This message will be displayed on the scoreboard during this afternoon’s Olympic opening ceremonies in Athens, but gifted and deserving Canadian athletes like Saskatoon fencer Tarsch Bakos, marathon runner Nicole Stevenson and hammer thrower Jennifer Joyce won’t be there to see it.

They’ll be at home because the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) has turned its back on them.

Almost every other country in the world would be proud to welcome these athletes onto their Olympic team - but not Canada.

Instead of following the accepted international standards, the COC board decided to make it even tougher for Canadian athletes to qualify.

This misguided decision by the COC has led to a ridiculous situation in Athens. Unbelievably, Canada has more support staff than athletes at the Games.

It was easier to make this team as a politician, a “media attache,” an “administrative services officer” or a “team welcome officer” than an athlete.

Most events at the Olympics have fields of several dozen athletes, and medals are often won by the “longshots” like Victoria’s Simon Whitfield.

Whitfield was ranked 13th in the triathlon heading to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He won the gold medal and became a national hero.

Under the COC’s new rules, if you aren’t ranked in the top-12 in the world, they don’t want you.

That also means that Canadian hurdler Perdita Felicien, the gold medal favourite, would not have qualified for the 2000 Olympic team.

She placed 29th that year, saying she felt like a “deer in the headlights.” But that experience was invaluable for her, and she’ll now be more calm and focused in her quest for victory.

Even Saskatoon’s Dr. Cyprean Enweani, who finished a stellar ninth in the 200m sprint at the 1988 Olympics, would not have made this team based on his pre-Olympic world ranking.

“Now they’re telling a lot of Canadian champions that they’re not good enough, that that’s not worth anything. Well, to hell with them,” said Enweani.

Tarsch Bakos, who trains in Saskatoon under longtime coach Claude Seguin, placed in the top eight fencers at World Cup competitions in Qatar and Austria this year.

Those excellent results would have made him a shoe-in for most other Olympic teams. But Canada’s new rules required three top-eight finishes. Even if he had cleared that hurdle, he would have been forced to win a tournament against North and South America’s best.

So Bakos was left at home, while other weaker fencers from around the world will round out the field of 32 competitors in Athens.

“I had an eight-year plan. It’s very sad for me,” said Bakos. Bakos wanted to dedicate his Olympic experience to his father, who supported Bakos during every step of his career and died of cancer last year.

“I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m 28 years old, but maybe I can stick it out for four more years,” he said.

Seguin has coached Bakos for 15 years and feels terrible.

“I am really upset. People not nearly as good as Tarsch will be there. And anything can happen at the Olympics,” Seguin said.

In the marquee Olympic sport, track and field, there are nearly a dozen athletes who exceeded international standards but were left behind.

Jennifer Joyce, 23, broke the Canadian hammer throw record this year, achieving the tough “A” standard set by Canada. She also threw further than the “B” standard several times. Other nations are sending hammer throwers with just one B throw, but Canada requires two A performances.

Joyce was left off the team despite a formal appeal.

“I’ve been dreaming of going to the Olympics since I was a little girl. I’m the Canadian record holder, and they’re sending all these bureacrats to Athens to push paper,” Joyce said.

Joyce, who is working as a track coach in Berkeley, California, is considering applying for U.S. citizenship. She would have made the American team this year. “I’ve been burned so many times, I need to look around,” she said.

Marathon runner Nicole Stevenson exceeded the international marathon standard twice this year by several minutes each. This is an incredible accomplishment in such a gruelling event contested by athletes from nearly every country in the world. But Canada set its women’s marathon mark a full nine minutes faster than the rest of the world. So Stevenson was rejected.

Even more galling is the fact that Olympic organizers made a special request for each country to send a full marathon team.

This year’s 42.2 km race will cover the legendary route of Phiddipides, the Greek soldier, who ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a military victory before dying.

For this historic, once-in-a-lifetime event watched by billions around the world, Stevenson, two other Canadian women and two Canadian men have the international standard and should be competing.

How many of them will be there? None.

“This is ridiculous. It’s not like the international standards are easy. They’re trying to kill our sport,” Stevenson said.

“Even for the athletes who are in Athens, they’ll be eating cafeteria food while the politicians and bureacrats are wined and dined.”

Stevenson, 30, will be reaching her peak in the next few years, but isn’t sure she wants to sacrifice so much again for the chance to compete for Canada.

“If Canada is not proud of me, why should I beg to wear a Canadian uniform?” Stevenson said.

Bruce Deacon is a two-time Olympian who was one of the men left off the marathon team. He’d like to see the top-12 world ranking apply to some of the support staff and politicians.

“How do the athletes benefit from all this schmoozing (the politicians and CEOs do)?” Deacon said.

Athletes CAN, the lobby group for Canada’s top athletes, is vehemently opposed to the standards.

So who voted for this backward new policy?

Two Saskatchewan residents sit on the 70-plus member board that voted for these new standards. Most of those voting are the CEOs of national sports federations, but there are also six athletes who vote.

Regina Mayor Pat Fiacco, reached in Athens Thursday where he is refereeing the boxing competitions, said he’s defintely against the new rules, and spoke against them at a recent COC meeting.

“I think it’s a mistake. We may be leaving potential medalists at home. You never know what’s going to happen,” Fiacco said.

“And let’s look at the spirit of the Olympics. Common sense has to prevail.”

The other is Regina’s Karen Purdy, chair of the COC Athlete’s council but a fan of the tougher standards.

Purdy is a curler, a very popular sport in Canada but one that few countries take seriously. The new policy has no effect on curling, as the lack of competition will always will always ensure Canada a world top-12 ranking.

In an interview, Purdy repeated the COC line that “raising the bar” will motivate athletes to perform better. She also claimed there are mediocre Canadian athletes who were using the Olympics as a vacation. These athletes simply partied and used up medical services that better athletes needed more.

The COC has never provided any examples of this, and has no data to show that “raising the bar” will win more medals. This will not create better teams, only smaller ones that eliminate potential medalists from lower down in the rankings.

COC marketing and commnunications director Nick Marrone said the Olympics “is about winning.” If you don’t have a good chance at a medal, then you shouldn’t be there, he said.

It’s all about psychology, he tried to explain. If the standards are toughened, the athlete will be more motivated, he said. This will lead to more medals, he claimed.

Most athletes believe, however, that tougher standards and no more financial support will not help our medal count.

When asked what he thinks about the Olympic Creed, valuing struggle as much as triumph, Marrone replied, “I think it’s entirely consistent.”

Joyce, Stevenson, Bakos, and many others disagree. They want to conquer, but they know there is also glory when qualified athletes fight well for their country.

“It makes me sick to think of it,” Enweani said.

“It’s amazing the COC is doing this. It is taking our sports to a place I don’t want to go.”

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