Olympic success? Canada's medal haul heavy on bronze

The medal count is respectable but the golds aren't there as in the past, and some are starting to ask if the world is overtaking us at some of our best sports, Tom Parry reports.

Canadians can be forgiven for looking with envy at Great Britain's Olympic squad.

Team GB, as it is universally referred to here, is cleaning up at these London Games. Canada, not so much.

British athletes have already surpassed their record at the Beijing Games, where they took home 47 medals and Britain currently stands third, behind sporting superpowers China and the United States.

Canada, meanwhile, finds itself well down the medals table, with 14 so far, four short of the 18 that Canadian athletes won in Beijing. What's more, again unlike the British, there has been a noticeable lack of gold in Canada's medal haul.

To date, Team Canada has just one gold medal, the top prize Ontario's Rosie MacLennan won in trampoline last week.

In the past three summer Games, Canadians have walked away with at least three gold medals, but they will be hard-pressed to match that in the remaining days here.

Canada's soccer captain, Christine Sinclair, leaves the pitch following the heartbreaking loss to the U.S. team on Monday. (Hussein Malla / Associated Press)

Canada's weaker showing can be blamed, in part, on injuries and plain bad luck.

Canada's flag-bearer, Simon Whitfield, who won the gold in the triathlon in Sydney and silver in Beijing, crashed out of his race on Tuesday when he lost control of his bike on a speed bump.

"That's not how I pictured things," said Whitfield who, at 37, was taking part in his fourth and final Olympics. Most Canadians would have answered, "No kidding."

Freak accidents — like the concussion suffered by diver Alexandre Despatie in June, while training for these Olympics, or the death of equestrian Eric Lamaze's storied horse Hickstead in November — aren't the whole story, of course.

Money is always an issue and some Canadian athletes are starting to question openly whether we are doing enough to keep up with the competition.

There is also the fact that the Olympic universe itself seems to be changing considerably.


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At these Summer Games, Canada has been squeezed out in tight competitions by opponents, not just from Britain, but from around the world.

China has dominated in diving and made huge gains in swimming, while Germany has led the way in rowing and the U.S. beat the Canadian women's soccer team in a heartbreaker of a match.

Anne Merklinger, the former curling skip and now CEO of Own the Podium, the independent agency set up to help fund Canada's elite athletes, says the world of Olympic sport is becoming more competitive with each new Games.

"I mean the world has stepped up. The level of performance from nation after nation has increased significantly," she says. "And we're not the only nation saying that.

"Look at the pool, where Australia used to be dominant. And this time we are seeing nations with medalists on the podium that we've never seen before."

'Money gets results'

Still, as Canadian athletes look at their British competition stepping up to the podium time and again to the tune of "God Save the Queen," they know that it's not just training and sweat that got them there. It also took money.

Bronze-medal winner Gillian Carleton says Canadian athletes need more resources to really own the podium. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

For these last several years especially, Britain has bankrolled its athletes and invested heavily in training the best among them.

Since the Beijing Games, Britain has spent roughly half a billion dollars training its Olympic and Paralympics teams. Much of it comes from a dedicated share in a special lottery that was set up 15 years ago (and which the Conservative government is considering clawing back once these Games are over.)

"You can see the success that they've had at this Olympics," says Gillian Carleton, a Canadian cyclist who won bronze at these Games along with teammates Tara Whitten and Jasmin Glaesser in women's team pursuit.

"In track cycling (Great Britain) has won five gold medals already, which is amazing. That's what happens. That's what happens when you put money, lots of money into your sport. It gets results."

Carleton, who says she went into debt to fund her training —  her fiancé set up a web page to collect donations for her — says Canada should take a lesson from Britain and invest even more in its elite athletes.

 "I think if we want to see more results like we are seeing at this Olympics from athletes, more gold medal performances, Canada needs to put more money into their athletes, for sure."

Where the money goes

In Canada's case, the federal government puts about $62 million a year into amateur athletics.

Own the Podium, the agency set up to fund elite Canadian athletes, divides that up, with $34 million going to summer sports, $22 million for winter sports and $6 million for the elite team sports.

Merklinger agrees summer sports could use more support and that Canada has a long way to go to catch up with other nations.

But while she says she will "revisit" the issue with Ottawa following these Games, she is reluctant to look to government for more money.

Silver medal winner Adam van Koeverden: We can keep our heads high. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

"I don't know if that all has to come from the public sector," she says. "One of our objectives is to work with partners like the Canadian Olympic Committee and others to find ways that we can get more private sector investment in high performance sport."

Still, Merklinger argues that Canada has been doing things right, pointing to the Vancouver Winter Games two years ago in which Canadian athletes won 14 gold medals, out of a total haul of 25. Team GB took just one medal in those Games, gold in women's skeleton sliding.

With a few days to go before the London Olympics wrap up, Merklinger is staying positive about Team Canada's prospects.

She says the team is about where it was expected to be at this point in the Games and she expects Canada to "pick up some more hardware over the next couple of days."

And if there is any self-doubt or disappointment among Canadian athletes about how their team is doing, it doesn't show.

Canadian silver medal kayaker Adam van Koeverden and bronze medal canoer Mark Oldershaw attended a reception at Canada House, the headquarters of the Canadian Olympic Committee, yesterday. Both were still buzzing from their strong showings.

Oldershaw says Canadian athletes can afford to have "more of a swagger" at these Games.

"I think we've been doing great. There's going to be ups and downs at every Olympics," he says.

"We only have one gold medal. But we have lots of other medals. And we have a lot of champions and a lot of great stories."

Van Koeverden is no less enthusiastic. "I couldn't be more stoked to be a member of the Canadian Olympic team," he says. "We're no longer in the shadow of professional athletes. We're standing right next to them."


  • An earlier version of this story said that Simon Whitfield won triathlon gold in Beijing. In fact, he won gold in Sydney in 2000 and silver in Beijing in 2008.
    Aug 09, 2012 7:46 AM ET