When two of Canada's greatest summer athletes retired from international
competition this week, it struck me that just by uttering their first
names, most of us got a picture of the impact they had on sport in this
The best of them become very familiar to us.
We think we know them to the point that we relate to them on a first-name basis. The stars of sport that we follow with the utmost adoration seem, at times, like the super-talented youngsters who might as well live right next door.
So it is that for a generation "Gordie" could only refer to Gordie Howe. In hockey these days there is only one "Sidney" and his surname is most definitely Crosby. While other guys called "Wayne" have played with distinction in the NHL, Gretzky automatically comes to mind.
In the Olympic realm we all know that "Catriona" is synonymous with speed skating while "Donovan" has been the fastest man on earth. "Clara" stands for the soul of sport and for a time "Elvis" ruled the figure skating world.
So when two of Canada's greatest summer athletes retired from international competition this week, it struck me that just by uttering their first names, most of us got a picture of the impact they had on sport in this country.
He came somewhat out of the blue to win that gold medal in triathlon at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia in 2000. For more than a decade he was at the very centre of the sport and inspired a generation of "Kids of Steel" who caught on to the multi-sport challenge.
Whitfield won another Olympic medal, silver in Beijing, after a thrilling and desperate dash, and carried Canada's flag into the opening ceremony of London 2012 before crashing at the outset of the cycling leg of the race.
"Simon" popularized triathlon in this country and while he defers to other pioneers like "Iron Man" Peter Reid, it was because of Whitfield that many of us considered a dalliance with his sport at all.
"It wasn't the adulation that mattered but the sharing of the moment," Whitfield said from his home in Victoria. "I've had people tell me they remember where they were and how they broke the coffee table by jumping up and down on it when I won in Sydney. To have met people through those moments when I was wearing the Maple Leaf and a Canadian uniform has been very special."
Felicien remembered for highs, lows
There has only ever been one "Perdita" as far as fans of Canadian sport are concerned.
Perdita Felicien is the only Canadian woman to have won an athletics world championship, as she did in the 100-metre hurdles in Paris in 2003.
She also won gold at the world indoor championships in Budapest in 2004 in the 60m event. There have been 10 Canadian titles along the way and she continues to hold the national record in the 100m hurdles, 12.46 seconds, which she established in 2004.
On the day of her retirement Thursday, Felicien reflected on her fame but also on the fact she will forever be remembered as someone favoured to win a gold medal and who crashed over the first hurdle at the 2004 Athens Games, never to fully recover and make amends at a subsequent Olympics.
"I love people and if someone takes time out of their day to say hello or give me their opinion on what happened in 2004, I'll sincerely stop to talk," she said. "It reminds me that I've worked so hard at something and that it's impacted someone enough for them to care to pay attention."
In many ways, Felicien, who has given rise to a large group of accomplished Canadian hurdlers including Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, Jessica Zelinka, Phylicia George and Nikkita Holder, is familiar to us not so much because of the many great victories on her resume but rather because she came up short of her ultimate goal.
"I don't get annoyed or agitated," she said. "It's what happens when you live a sporting life as largely and loudly as my own."
It's the essence of this fascination we have with athletes.
As devotees of sport we see them as ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things, and our association with their journeys draws them close to us. Many of us feel as if we are somehow living vicariously through them and sharing in their victories and defeats, their joys and their sorrows.
In the end, the most influential of these athletes become our champions. They win and they lose but most importantly they leave lasting impressions on us.
When all is said and done and when their competitive careers draw to a close, the greatest of these so-called "heroes" of sport are the ones who owned the field of play as far as their followers are concerned.
They will always be remembered because we got to know them on a first-name basis.
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Scott brings vast experience, passion and knowledge to his role as host of CBC's Sports Weekend on CBC. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell has covered nine Olympic Games and co-hosted Olympic Morning for Beijing 2008: The Olympic Games. The Gemini-Award winning broadcaster and acclaimed author has also worked as a host and rinkside reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and has covered triathlon, gymnastics, rugby, cross-country skiing and biathlon at several Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.
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