Summer Sports·CBC SPORTS IN TOKYO

Canadian Olympians proved glory can come from anywhere

Against seemingly insurmountable conditions throughout the incessant pandemic, Canada's athletes navigated restrictions and kept up with the rest of the world by training in basements and backyards, hockey rinks and garages — they not only endured, they thrived.

Athletes in Japan faced adversity like never before — and dazzled all the same

From left to right, Canada's Kayla Sanchez, Maggie Mac Neil, Rebecca Smith, and Penny Oleksiak celebrate their silver medal in the women's 4x100m freestyle relay on Sunday, July 25. It was the first of 24 medals for Team Canada at Tokyo 2020. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

It started with silver, ended with gold and wedged in between there were 22 more unforgettable Canadian medal moments, inspired off-the-podium finishes, and history making performances throughout the course of a magical Tokyo Olympics for Canada. 

The 24 medals won by Canadians mark the best finish at the Summer Games outside of the 1984 boycotted Olympics.

Canadian women, like they did in Rio, led the way.

Against seemingly insurmountable conditions throughout the incessant pandemic, Canada's athletes navigated restrictions and kept up with the rest of the world by training in basements and backyards, hockey rinks and garages — they not only endured, they thrived.

"In my opinion, this is the best result Canada has ever had at the Olympics," said Canadian chef de mission and three-time Olympic champion, Marnie McBean.

The rallying cry from Team Canada in Japan was "Glory from Anywhere" — a campaign highlighting Canadian athletes with different stories and different backgrounds, who all took unique journeys to find their way to the rings.

"Inside all of us lives the potential for glory," the promotional material said.

It was evident in Tokyo.

Canada sent its largest contingent of athletes to the Olympics since 1984. A total of 371 athletes from every part of the country competed at the Games.

But before the cauldron was lit, Canadian athletes excelled and fans swelled with pride, there was skepticism, fear and concern about these Games even happening. And for good reason. With COVID-19 cases spiking in Tokyo, and thousands of people arriving in Japan from around the world, caution and care were needed.

The Canadians toed a fine line between wanting to celebrate the Games, while understanding the perspective that there were more important things at stake. In the end, not a single Canadian athlete registered a positive COVID-19 case.

Canadians brought the heat

Fans too in Canada weren't overly sure what to expect — or if they were going to consume the Olympics.

Then Naomi Osaka ignited the fire, Canadian athletes brought the heat and fans basked in the glow of gold, silver and bronze.

Canadians may have been torn apart by the pandemic but were in some ways stitched together again, even just a little bit, through spellbinding sporting moments over the past three weeks.

The women's soccer team knocked off their nemesis in the Americans and then stole victory from the Swedes in a stirring gold medal game five million Canadians watched. Team captain Christine Sinclair finally got her gold that was 21 years, 304 caps, and 187 goals in the making.

Steph Labbé, Canada's keeper, was jokingly named National Minister of Defence in Wikipedia after she shut the door on Sweden in the penalty kicks.

WATCH | Canada wins soccer gold in penalty shootout: 

Canadian women win gold after roller-coaster penalty shootout

3 months ago
1:23
Julia Grosso scored the winner, while keeper Stephanie Labbé stood tall in Canada's wild 3-2 win over Sweden on penalty kicks. 1:23

Penny Oleksiak, 21, became Canada's most-decorated Olympian, following up her historic debut in Rio where she won four medals, with three more in Tokyo.

Her seventh, a bronze, came alongside three other women in the women's 4x100-metre medley  — a fitting way to make history and the only way Oleksiak wanted it to happen.

"I'm glad I didn't win it in an individual [event] because this just makes it ten times sweeter knowing that I've accomplished this history with girls that are also making history," Oleksiak told CBC Sports.

And who will forget Sydney Pickrem's courageous breaststroke swim and her memorable interview that followed?

"I was absolutely shitting myself," she said, as her teammates burst out laughing. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it."

Evan Dunfee got his bronze medal five years after a heartbreaking fourth in Rio. The Canadian race walker, from Richmond, B.C.,  is one of the more determined athletes you'll meet.

His closing metres after walking 50,000 steps allowed him to surge from fifth to third.

"I don't need a medal to validate myself. I'm proud of what I accomplished today, but I have been dreaming of this moment and winning this medal for 21 years. I am over the moon," he said.

WATCH | Evan Dunfee makes late push for bronze:

Canada's Evan Dunfee captures Olympic bronze with last-minute surge in 50km race walk

3 months ago
3:10
Evan Dunfee of Richmond, B.C., surged into podium position on the final stretch to win bronze in the men's 50-kilometre race walk. Poland's Dawid Tomala claimed gold and Germany's Jonathan Hilbert took silver. 3:10

Moh Ahmed won Canada's first distance medal on the track with a brilliant last kick to silver.

Summer McIntosh, 14, proved it's never too early to start an Olympic dream. Brent Hayden, 37 years old and returning after seven years retired, proved it's never too late to reignite an Olympic dream either.

Four athletes from London, Ont., won three gold medals for the red and white.

Maggie Mac Neil swam to gold in the women's 100m butterfly, posting the third-fastest time in the event ever.

Jessie Fleming showed steely nerves, poise and confidence while delivering three precise penalty kicks to help Canada's women's soccer team win gold. Teammate Shelina Zadorsky has been a key player for Canada for the past 18 months, and has benefited from making her move from the NWSL to England where she plays with Tottenham.

And the closing ceremony flag-bearer, Damian Warner, finally broke the 9,000-point barrier, setting an Olympic record to win gold in the decathlon.

WATCH | Damian Warner's road to Olympic glory:

Canadian Damian Warner’s road to Olympic glory

3 months ago
3:19
Canada’s Damian Warner set an Olympic record at Tokyo 2020, winning gold in the men’s decathlon with 9,018 points. His achievement underscores the amount of mental and physical preparation he’s had over the years. [Note: This video will be removed by end of day Dec. 31, 2021, as per our rights agreement with the International Olympic Committee.] 3:19

The 31-year-old triumphantly carried the Canadian flag into the closing ceremony at Olympic Stadium on Sunday night in Tokyo, proudly waving the Maple Leaf.

"This is the honour of my lifetime to be named closing ceremony flag bearer for Canada. This could have been anyone on this team," he said.

He's right. For all the previous Games when choosing the closing ceremony flag-bearer was quite evident, this time in Tokyo, it was not.

Canadians won medals on 14 different days of competition. There have been Summer Games in the past when Team Canada would go long stretches without standing on the podium.

Those days are over.

Andre De Grasse won three more medals at the Olympics, including the gold that had eluded him. De Grasse has won a medal in every event he's competed in over the last two Olympics, a staggering record. He's now Canada's most decorated male Summer Olympian.

Seeing the love he had for his partner Nia Ali and kids after winning was beautiful.

WATCH | Andre De Grasse blazes to 200m gold:

Andre De Grasse finally gets his golden moment at the Olympics

3 months ago
1:39
Canada's Andre De Grasse won gold in the 200-metre race, setting a national record while taking over the title from legendary sprinter Usain Bolt. 1:39

Quinn, a member of the women's soccer team, became the first openly trans and non-binary athlete to win Olympic gold.

"If I can allow kids to play the sports they love, that's my legacy and that's what I'm here for," Quinn said.

But there was heartbreak, too.

Canada had upwards of a dozen fourth place finishes.

Rosie MacLennan, Ellie Black and the 4x400m women's track relay team just missed the podium. MacLennan and Black showed grit and resilience by fighting through injury just to compete.

Diving duo of Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay missed the podium by less than a point after a disastrous fourth dive. But it's one of the greatest fourth place finishes ever for Canada.

McKay had injured her ankle weeks before the Olympics but she shared the full extent of the damage as she fought back tears after the competition.

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.

At the end of their interview with journalists, Benfeito put McKay on her back and walked her down the hall in an emotional scene at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

Meaghan Benfeito carries Caeli McKay on her back following the post-competition press conference. The duo placed fourth in the women's 10-metre synchronized diving event on Tuesday in Tokyo as McKay competed with an injured ankle. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

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

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 IOC reversed course and said it would allow breastfeeding moms to bring their children to Tokyo.

Canadian women blazed a new path for those who are coming in their wake. Of the 24 medals won, 18 were captured by athletes competing in women's events, including historic first medal wins in softball, judo and women's canoe sprints. Golden performances by the women's eight rowing, weightlifter Maude Charron, cyclist Kelsey Mitchell and of course the women's soccer team sent the nation into a frenzy of celebration.

These Games reminded us of the power of sport and what can be accomplished together.

In victory and defeat, Canada's athletes indeed proved glory can come from anywhere.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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