What defines an “Olympic Performance?”
First, I should define what the term “Olympic Performance” means to me. It’s not simply competing at the Olympics. For me, it’s an athlete being able to embrace the pressure and expectations, cast aside the doubts and fear of failure, and produce a performance that is capable of inspiring a nation. These moments are rare, which, in my mind, makes them that much more special.
We all have those unforgettable memories of Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal or Alexandre Bilodeau’s final run to win the first gold medal on Canadian soil, so winning a gold medal goes a long way in finding an appropriate definition.
That said, I think there can be more to it than just the gold medal. There’s something to be respected about the athlete that can truly grasp the opportunity in front of them and rise up to the challenge. Not sit back and be safe and focus on what could go wrong, but risk it all and go for the win.
Now, that doesn’t always result in winning a gold medal, and in my mind two of Canada’s best performances at the Beijing Olympics ended up with silver medals. As an athlete, simply thinking about those moments evokes an intense level of pride and emotion. I think it affects me so profoundly because I have a decent idea about what has gone into the training and preparation, and the pressure that these athletes were feeling. Even as I write my account of their events, nearly four years later, I get goose bumps. These athletes are great ambassadors for sport in Canada and I’m excited to watch them compete in London.
Simon Whitfield burst onto the scene in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics when he won the inaugural Olympic triathlon. It was an iconic moment in Canadian Olympic sport and thrust Simon into the spotlight that he has enjoyed for the past eight years. That was our first glimpse at his ability to sprint. After a disappointing result in Athens, he was back on form and looking to regain his spot on the podium in Beijing.
I remember walking into the Canadian athletes’ lounge in the Olympic Village to watch the end of the race on TV with about three kilometers to go in the run. The room was tense. It was full of other Canadian athletes all nervously watching and cheering for Simon. The lead group of five athletes became four, and then with roughly 1000 metres to go Simon started to drop off the back of the pack and it looked as if he was destined to finished fourth. The room fell silent as we all saw how the race would likely end.
Then, as the runners came around a hairpin turn with 600m to go, Simon threw his visor aside and just started sprinting. Sprinting as if there was only 100m to go and his life was on the line. He caught and then blew by the three leaders and opened up a 15-metre lead, only to fade in the final 100m and relinquish the lead to Jan Frodeno of Germany. He didn’t win, but in those moments of overwhelming fatigue and panic, as he could feel the race slipping away from him, Simon made the decision to grasp the rare and defining opportunity in front of him, grit his teeth, and go. Ignore everything else and just go.
Adam van Koeverden
Van Koeverden carried the flag for Canada at the opening ceremony in 2008 with the expectations of a nation resting on his shoulders. The kayaker had been the only double medallist for Canada at the Athens Olympics and everyone was hoping for a similar result in Beijing. On top of that was the enormous pressure and scrutiny that comes with being the flag bearer. He dealt with it like the professional that he is and advanced through his preliminary races unscathed, breaking his own world record in the heats.
And then it all fell apart. In the final for the 1000m, Adam got off to a great start and was in a close second place at the halfway point, but then faded off the pace and ended up eighth, nowhere near what he had expected and undoubtedly a huge hit to his confidence.
I’ve been there. My teammate Dave Calder and I had a terrible race in our heat in Beijing, where we led for most of the race only to be sprinted through by two pairs we had beaten easily only a month prior. At the Olympics everything is magnified, so much so that any insecurity or fear can be blown up into something that becomes paralyzing. Needless to say, having one of your races go drastically wrong can lead you down a very negative mental path. We had nearly four days to recover and turn things around for our semifinal, and we needed every minute. Adam had less than 24 hours.
Rather than succumb to the negative thoughts, his disappointing race seemed to embolden him. Similar to Simon’s final sprint, Adam shot out of the gates in the opening strokes of his 500m final the next day as he took charge of the race. Whatever the end result, he was going to be able to walk away knowing that he had ruthlessly attacked his race. Given the circumstances, I think that took an incredible resolve and belief in himself. He led through half way and held off all but one attacker to win the silver medal.
The gold medals are what most people will remember, and to some extent that is how it should be. Medals are the goal and usually an objective measure of an athlete’s ability. But, within that point of view, other performances such as Simon’s and Adam’s can be overlooked and somehow seen as them simply failing to win. I would guess that anyone who has seen those races would agree that’s a gross undervaluing of the heart they showed and the pride they instilled.