Francophone Games near close in controversy

Rheal Leroux, director general of the Francophone Games, finally blew his top on the next-to-last day of his 10-day festival of sports, culture and the absurd.

It was another round of complaints and controversy at his daily news briefings and Leroux, true to form, played down the troubles and turned attention to the playing fields.

"That's not what's interesting," said Leroux, before turning on his heels and walking out. "Jason Tunks, a Canadian, beat the world champion in the discus.

"That's what's interesting. I'd rather watch that. "

Perhaps inadvertently, Leroux had summed up the fourth Francophone Games in Ottawa-Hull, which were to end with closing ceremonies at Leamy Lake on Tuesday night.

Many fine performances jostled for attention with organizational glitches and bizarre events at the quadrennial meeting that is officially called the Games of the Francophonie.

There were three gold medals on the track for little-known sprinter Stephan Buckland of Mauritius, who was all-but overlooked in the brouhaha over Games' poster boy Bruny Surin's decision to bolt Ottawa after losing to Buckland in the 100-metre final.

And a strong boxing tournament dominated by Romania almost didn't happen when the referees threatened to strike over meals, taxi fares and their $50 daily stipends

It seemed that every day another controversy was threatening to blow the Games apart.

There were two Moroccan athletes sent home for shoplifting and a Lebanese athlete given the boot for allegedly beating his wife.

One positive drug test was announced on Tuesday -- Egyptian boxer Abdallah Bakr tested positive for banned stimulant ephedrine, and was ejected from the Games.

At last count, eight athletes and coaches had asked for political asylum in Canada, although their names and countries of origin were kept under wraps.

Some Games volunteers quit because they hadn't received jackets they were promised and some students hired for the summer went public with a letter informing them their pay had been abruptly cut by 25 per cent.

There were murmurings of deep discontent on the organizing committee.

But there were also successes.

Leroux said the Games passed their target of $2 million in total ticket sales and would stay within their $40 million budget.

Canada went into the final day battling France and Romania for the medals lead after some excellent performances, particularly in track and field, which produced 10 gold, five silver and five bronze medals for the home side.

Among them were Shane Niemi of Kamloops, B.C., breaking the 45-second barrier to win the men's 400m in 44.86 and Tina Connelly of Port Coquitlam, B.C., taking gold in the 5,000m ahead of Zhor el-Kamch of Morocco, which had all-but owned the endurance events.

While one French track official called Terry Fox stadium a bush-league facility and complained the meet could have been better organized by "a poor African country," there were few complaints from the Canadians.

"It's a great competition," said 1,500m ace Kevin Sullivan of Brantford, Ont., who got boxed in on the last lap and finished a disappointing fourth. "The field has been excellent."

But there was grumbling that many top athletes didn't take the meet seriously, which grew louder when Surin, reportedly paid $250,000 to be a Games ambassador, decided he needed work on his technique heading into the Aug. 3-12 world athletics championships in Edmonton.

His decision to leave on Sunday infuriated some teammates on the Canada-Quebec relay squad, which was later disqualified in the semifinals for an illegal baton pass. In the final, the Canadian team dropped the baton and lost a shot at gold.

Canada dominated beach volleyball, with Guylaine Dumont of St-Etienne-de-Lauzon, Que., and Kathy Tough of Calgary winning the women's gold and the duo of Jody Holden of Shelburne, N.S., and Conrad Leinemann, of Kelowna, B.C., taking the men's.

Some of the headaches organizers endured stemmed from the fact that the Francophone Games are not a big-budget extravaganza like the Olympics, but are expected to run as smoothly.

They are relatively informal, with their eight cultural events and seven sports, plus two track events for handicapped athletes (won by wheelchair racers Jeff Adams of Toronto and Chantal Petitclerc of Montreal).

On Sunday, a sudden gust blew an advertising banner off the roof of Frank Clair stadium and fractured the arm of a nine-year-old boy who had come to cheer his favourite soccer team, Cameroon.

Organizers moved the crowd to grandstands on the opposite side of the field and the match continued. The boy is reported to be fine, and he received a team flag signed by all the Cameroon players.

Even La Francophonie, an organization of 52 countries or regional governments with ties to the French language, is a loose grouping that includes some whose links to France have faded over the centuries, like Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.

Debate surfaced during the Games as to whether it was right that one of the leading submissions in the poetry competition should count because it was written in Czech.

Another of the Games' quirks was that Canada had three teams -- Canada, Canada-Quebec and Canada-New Brunswick. Indeed, Quebec out-medalled Canada in judo, 8-7, although France cleaned up with 10.

Canada won one of the cultural events, with a Montreal quintet called Corpus taking the street busking competition. Annie Thibault of Hull won the sculpture contest for Canada-Quebec.

Blessed with warm, cloudless weather until the final two days, the cultural events drew large crowds while the sports were split -- sparse crowds for indoor events like judo and women's basketball and packed grandstands at outdoor venues like beach volleyball and soccer.

And for 10 days, people in the Ottawa-Hull area got to meet and mingle with people from all over the French-speaking, or at least formerly French-speaking, world -- except for Guinea-Bissau and Moldova, which for reasons unknown, never showed up.

The first Francophone Games were held in Casablanca and Rabat, Morocco in 1989, followed by Paris in 1994 and Madagascar in 1997. The next are scheduled for 2005 in Niger.

By Bill Beacon