Olympics Summer·Analysis

Olympic Review: Canada's highs and lows

While Canada won only a single gold medal at the London Olympics, Canadian athletes have never experienced a higher level of success than they have over the last 20 years.

Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt remain kings of their sports

No Canadians experienced the highs and lows of the London Olympics more than Christine Sinclair, left, Sophie Schmidt, centre, Melissa Tancredi, and the rest of the women’s soccer team. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The reviews have been mixed when discussing Canada’s performance at the London Olympics.

Some pundits have dubbed London the "Bronze Olympics" for Canadian athletes — a reference to the disproportionate amount of bronze medals (12) earned compared to other podium finishes (one gold and five silvers). But a little perspective is in order.

The fact Canada captured only one gold medal in London doesn’t mean the nation is in crisis. In truth, Canada — aside from the 10 gold medals won at the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games — rarely reaches the top of the podium at a Summer Olympics with regular frequency.

Beginning with Atlanta in 1996 and right through to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Canada has won exactly three gold medals in each of those four Games. In terms of overall medals, Canada’s 18 in London equals its Beijing output, and ranks second to the 22 earned in Atlanta — the most ever by a Canadian team in a non-boycotted Olympics.

If you count the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, highlighted by seven gold medals, Canadian athletes have never experienced a higher level of success than they have over the last 20 years.

On Sunday night, the Olympics will end with the traditional closing ceremony, an event you can follow as part of CBCSports.ca’s live blog and chat throughout the day.

Canada's athletes will enter London’s Olympic Stadium behind soccer star Christine Sinclair, who was named the Canadian flag bearer on Sunday after leading her team to a bronze medal.

Like their fellow athletes from other countries, the Canadians may recall the remarkable highs and lows that took place over the last 18 days.

Canadian women’s soccer team steals show 

There was no bigger story from a Canadian standpoint than the women’s soccer team. From the moment Sinclair and her teammates touched down on the Mother Country, the spotlight belonged to them.

They didn’t disappoint. The first order of business was to erase the embarrassing showing at the 2011 World Cup in Germany. Canada did that by advancing to the quarter-final round with a respectable 1-1-1 record in the group stage. After disposing of Great Britain in the quarters, a historic semifinal matchup with the Olympic champion U.S. women awaited.

The match more than lived up to the high-profile billing. On three separate occasions in regulation time, Sinclair gave Canada a one-goal lead, only to have the U.S. tie it all three times.  But it was the controversy with Canada leading 3-2 that will always define this contest. That’s when Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen transformed herself into one of the most infamous figures in Olympic history.

In a sequence of calls that set off a firestorm from both the Canadian players and a few media outlets outside the U.S., Pedersen called goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball too long, which led to a free kick inside the Canadian box. While a six-second infraction does exist in the rulebook, the enforcement usually comes with a warning, one McLeod said she never received.

The referee then awarded the U.S. a penalty kick when Marie-Eve Nault was charged with a handball. Abby Wambach converted that chance with less than 10 minutes remaining before Alex Morgan’s header in the final minute of extra time buried Canada, and sent the Americans on their way to another gold medal following their 4-3 win.

The loss could’ve ruined Canada’s chances against France in the bronze match, but the women were still playing for history. Diana Matheson's dramatic goal in the 92nd minute gave Canada a 1-0 win and landed the country its first medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.

Sinclair finally earned the one thing that was missing from her legendary career — an Olympic medal. She led the tournament with six goals, including the memorable hat trick against the U.S., and increased her international career total to 143, tying her with Wambach for the second-most of all time behind retired U.S. star Mia Hamm.

MacLennan captures lone gold medal

Canada’s lone gold medal of the Games came from an unlikely source.

Heading into London, Rosie MacLennan competed in the rather large shadow of three-time Olympic medallist and trampoline great Karen Cockburn. That changed when MacLennan, of King City, Ont., executed a brilliant routine to capture gold.

MacLennan had to wait to celebrate as 2008 Olympic champion He Wenna of China pressed hard during her last routine. To everyone’s amazement, He tumbled on her last manoeuvre, sending MacLennan into Olympic history.

Heymans, van Koeverden leave mark

Emilie Heymans is one of the most unassuming Olympic athletes you’ll ever come across, until she steps on a diving platform. In London, the Quebec native left one final lasting mark that put her in the Canadian record books.

By winning a bronze medal in the women’s three-metre synchronized springboard event with partner Jennifer Abel, she became the first Canadian ever to win a medal in four straight Olympics.

Adam van Koeverden didn’t break any records, but his silver in the men’s K-1 1,000m event gave him four career Olympic medals, making him one of the most decorated Canadian athletes of all time. The Oakville, Ont., kayaker also captured gold and bronze at the 2004 Athens Games and added a silver in Beijing.

Canadians suffer heartbreak

Jared Connaughton was apologetic after his disqualification cost Canada a bronze medal in the men’s 4x100-metre relay race. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
It began with triathlete Paula Findlay, finished with the men’s 4x100-metre relay team, and in between, there was plenty of heartbreak for Canada.

Findlay looked like a legitimate gold-medal threat last season until a hip injury sidelined her, and the problems persisted this season. The Edmontonian put off surgery, but she was unable to compete all year, putting her in a difficult spot for the Olympics.

A poor swim, combined with the lingering hip problems, resulted in Findlay finishing dead last (52nd place), prompting her to make a public apology even as Canadians saluted her grit in the face of the debilitating injury. Fellow Canadian triathlete Simon Whitfield quickly came to Finlday’s defence, criticizing the way her injury was handled.

One day later, equestrian Tiffany Foster of Schomberg, Ont., was on a news podium in tears as she reacted to her disqualification in the team jumping competition. Officials decided that her horse, Victor, was showing hypersensitivity in the left front limb stemming from a scratch shortly before the individual and team jumping events began.

If that wasn’t enough, the Canadian men’s 4x100-metre relay team thought they had a bronze medal on the final day of the track events. The team shocked the rest of the field by edging out Trinidad and Tobago for third place. However, jubilation turned to horror when Jared Connaughton was disqualified for stepping on the line of his lane just prior to the baton exchange with Justyn Warner, Canada’s anchor.

Connaughton would later tweet: "I'm so sorry everyone. My heart is broken. I let my team down. I'm sorry."

Veterans end Olympics on sour note

The London Games were not kind to Canadians Clara Hughes, Simon Whitfield and Alexandre Despatie. Hughes, one of Canada’s most decorated Olympic athletes with six medals, finished fifth in the cycling time trial and 32nd in the women’s road race. In the finale of her great Olympic career, Hughes was unable to capture the one more medal that would have moved her past Cindy Klassen to become Canada's all-time Olympic medal leader.

The 39-year-old Winnipeg native, who has won four medals in speedskating over the past three Winter Games and two in cycling from the 1996 Games in Atlanta, told reporters that she was competing with a fractured vertebrae that she suffered in a crash during a race in Gatineau, Que., in May.

Whitfield, looking to build on his gold and silver medals earned at the 2000 Sidney Games and 2008 Beijing Olympics, respectively, crashed during the bike portion of his triathlon event and landed hard into a curb and metal guardrail.

The Victoria great later revealed on his Twitter account that he suffered a broken collarbone.

Two-time silver medallist Alex Despatie may also like to forget his London experience. Despatie headed into the Olympics recovering from a concussion he suffered in mid-June when he struck his head on the board while practising for an event in Madrid, and was a non-factor in both the men’s three-metre synchronized event and the individual three-metre competition.

The latter competition was especially tough on the Laval, Que., native as he missed badly on his final dive, leaving family and friends the unpleasant image of watching his torso hit the water at almost a horizontal angle on his final Olympic dive.

Phelps, Bolt cement legacies

Prior to London, there were doubts as to whether American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt would remain the top dogs of their respective sports.

Phelps was being challenged by compatriot Ryan Lochte, who defeated Phelps twice at the 2011 world championships. Bolt was getting a stiff challenge from countryman Yohan Blake, who had bested Bolt in both the 100 and 200 metres at the Jamaican trials.

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt became a legend in London and has yet to taste defeat in Olympic competition. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
The talk proved to be nothing more than, well, talk.

After looking terrible in the men’s 400 individual medley event — Phelps made an ill-advised decision to enter race — that Lochte easily won, the 27-year-old rebounded. Phelps won four gold medals and a pair of silvers. He finished his stellar career as the most decorated Olympian of all time — winning a record 18 golds and 22 overall medals over three Olympics.

Bolt was just as impressive. The magnificent Jamaican again won the 100 and 200 titles, and led the Jamaican 4x100 relay team to a world-record gold. At just 25, Bolt became the first to sweep the 100 and 200 events at back-to-back Olympics. He’s also the first track star to win all three sprints — 100, 200 and relay — in consecutive Games.

Bolt has one notable achievement over Phelps: he’s never tasted defeat in any of his six career Olympic events.

A star is born

Move over, Phelps. A fellow American is taking over, albeit on a smaller scale. Swimmer Missy Franklin was the star of the U.S. women’s team in London.

Franklin, whose parents are Canadian and who owns dual citizenship, became the darling of the pool after winning four gold medals and one bronze.

The 17-year-old accomplished all this before entering her senior year of high school. She may not reach Phelps status, but by the time her Olympic career is done, Franklin should rank among the greatest American Olympians ever.

Canadian national team coach Pierre LaFontaine can only dream of a swimmer this good.

Epic night for Brits

Like their Canadian counterparts at the Vancouver Winter Games, officials from Great Britain were focused on winning a lot of medals on home soil, particularly gold. The athletes did their part, reaching the top of the podium 29 times, ranking second only to the U.S. (46) and China (38).

Nothing could prepare any Brit for what occurred on the track at London’s Olympic Stadium on the second Saturday of the Games.

In rapid succession, the host country won three gold medals.

First, Jessica Ennis clinched the heptathlon title by winning the final 800-metre race. Roughly 20 minutes later, Greg Rutherford — building off Ennis’s momentum — leaped to a surprise gold medal in the men’s long jump. It was Rutherford’s first medal at a major international competition.

Before anyone could really grasp what was transpiring, Mo Farah sent the crowd into a dizzy after he captured the men’s 10,000 metre crown.

Three events. Three gold medals. All in less than one hour.