Summer Sports·Analysis

Women are dominating Canada's performance at the Olympics — and we shouldn't be surprised

Everywhere you turn at the Tokyo Olympics, there are Canadian women carving a new path for women in sport in their country. Through five days of competition in Japan, Canada has claimed nine medals — all by women.

Of the 9 medals claimed so far by Canada, all have been won by women athletes

From left to right, Penny Oleksiak, Rebecca Smith, Maggie Mac Neil and Kayla Sanchez pose after the 4x100m freestyle relay swimming final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on Sunday. The foursome won Canada's first medal at the Tokyo Games, and the other eight have also been captured by women athletes. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

Everywhere you turn at the Tokyo Olympics, there are Canadian women carving a new path for women in sport in their country.

Through five days of competition in Japan, Canada has won nine medals. Women have won all of them — the latest, 21-year-old swimmer Penny Oleksiak.

Swimmer Maggie Mac Neil won Canada's first gold at the Games. Weightlifter Maude Charron powered her way to the second gold. 

Jessica Klimkait made history in judo, becoming the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic medal in the sport for the country.

The Canadian women's softball team also made history, winning bronze, also a first for Canada.

Team Canada's youngest athlete, 14-year-old swimmer Summer McIntosh, has turned heads in the pool with her strong swimming. 

The list goes on. 

Oleksiak's bronze in the women's 200-metre freestyle on Wednesday made her Canada's most decorated summer Olympian. It's her sixth Olympic medal, having already won silver at these Games and four in her first Olympics in 2016 in Rio — one gold, one silver and two bronze.

WATCH | Penny Oleksiak makes Canadian history with 6th Olympic medal:

Penny Oleksiak makes Canadian history with 6th Olympic medal

3 months ago
1:32
Penny Oleksiak captured a bronze medal in the 200-metre freestyle on Day 5 of the Tokyo Olympics, making her the most decorated summer Olympian for Canada. 1:32

Oleksiak tied speed skaters Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen for the most medals won by Canadian Olympians.

"I'm tied with two other women right now, which is super special," Oleksiak said. "I'm just really motivated to keep going because I honestly didn't expect it."

Maybe this performance by Canadian women should have been expected. They won the first 12 medals of the Rio Games for Canada – women wearing the Maple Leaf in Brazil would end up winning 16 of the 22 medals there.

They're on track to at least match — if not surpass — that percentage of total medals won in Tokyo.

Out of the 371 athletes that make up Team Canada, 60 per cent are female or identify as female.

It wasn't always this way, though.

Rewind the tape to 1984, for example, when only 37 per cent of Team Canada was made up of women and female-identifying athletes.

Canada's first 21 opening ceremony flag-bearers were men before skier Nancy Greene finally carried the flag at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France.

Since then, Canada has evenly divided the duty between men and women, with 14 each.

'Follow your dreams'

Marnie McBean, Canada's chef de mission and a three-time Olympic champion, carried the flag alongside her rowing partner, the late Kathleen Heddle, at the closing ceremony of the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

Miranda Ayim, of the women's basketball team, carried the flag into the National Olympic Stadium at this year's opening ceremony alongside rugby sevens player Nathan Hirayama.

"Canada Basketball has been promoting a 'Mad Love' campaign talking about this exact topic and embracing all that you are, specifically young female athletes. We're tall, we're strong, we're fast. We have an aggressive side sometimes," she said.

"Continue to follow your dreams."

But the leadership from the Canadian women hasn't only come through winning medals and carrying a flag.

For Mandy Bujold, her fight to be reinstated after she was denied a spot at the Games due to being postpartum and pregnant during the qualifying was not only about her getting to the Olympics, but also to set a precedent for all women moving forward.

Bujold lost her first-round bout but is leaving the Games a winner.

WATCH | Bujold says 'sky is the limit for all women' after winning legal bout with IOC:

Canadian boxer Bujold says 'sky is the limit for all women' after winning legal bout with IOC

4 months ago
5:40
Watch boxer Mandy Bujold of Kitchener, Ont., read her statement after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that Olympic qualification criteria must include an accommodation for women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualification period, paving the way for Bujold to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. 5:40

"Changes are happening in the sports world slowly. If we don't continue to challenge the message that's coming out, nothing is ever going to change. I felt it was not only important for me but for the future of women's sport," she said.

Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher was at first backed into a corner by Olympic organizers who said she wouldn't be able to bring her three-month-old daughter, Sophie, to the Games. Gaucher took to social media and made her case.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) reversed course and said it would allow breastfeeding moms to bring their children to Tokyo.

"To all of the working moms out there who have had to fight this fight before, I think it was just a really good day for women in sport today," Gaucher said prior to the Games.

Canadian women's basketball team player Kim Gaucher holds her baby Sophie as teammate Kayla Alexander reads to her in Kariya City, Japan. (Canada Basketball/Handout/The Canadian Press)

And then there was the Canadian diving duo of Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay, who on Tuesday in Tokyo missed the podium by less than a point after a disastrous fourth dive. 

Then the real story came out, about how much pain McKay was fighting through during the competition. It had been documented that she injured her ankle weeks before the Olympics but she shared the full extent of the damage as she fought back tears after the competition.

"I have never competed through pain like this and I hope I never have to again," McKay said.

"I'm technically not supposed to be walking without a boot right now."

McKay tore ligaments in her foot. The doctors gave her a boot to wear around her ankle for support and a scooter that she placed her knee on to push herself around the Olympic village, taking the weight off of her foot. 

"I couldn't jump or walk three weeks ago. Just to be diving, to be here, to be an Olympian now, I'm just super proud," McKay said.

Meaghan Benfeito carries Caeli McKay out of the diving venue in Tokyo. (Twitter/@Devin_Heroux)

There will be lasting and memorable images of podium performances, moments of triumph and celebration.

But there will also be that image of Benfeito carrying McKay on her back down the hallway and out of the diving venue in Tokyo.

Canadian women are literally carrying one another through the Games and inspiring the next generation of female athletes along the way.

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