Building a better Olympian mind – Part 3

It was left to Sylvie Bemier, the team’s chef de mission in Beijing and the last Canadian, indeed the only Canadian, to win a diving gold (Los Angeles, 1984), to explain to people back home the scale of both Emilie and Alexandre’s accomplishments. “To have China and Canada up there next to each other on the podium is exceptional. China is normally so far out in front. I think we’re quietly catching up,” she says, still dripping wet from being pushed into the pool during the post-Heymans celebrations. “There’s a lot of pressure at the Games. Honestly, it’s the most pressure ever in the life of an athlete. And the most distractions. The whole world is watching.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee and its sporting federations have gone to great lengths in recent years to try and insulate their top athletes from those stresses. In the wake of the Athens debacle, non-performing and faint-hope sports saw their funding cut, and the resources reallocated to more promising events. The Olympic entourage of the favoured teams has grown to include on-site physiotherapists, masseuses, nutritionists and sports psychologists. Canada Olympic House–this time a restaurant near the main green–has become an exclusive refuge for athletes and their families.

(Donovan Bailey, winner of two sprinting golds in 1996, was reportedly turned away at the door.

And when COH held press conferences for medal winners, the media were asked to use a public bathroom in the adjoining park.) The menu for the gold-medal winning men’s eight rowers was planned out months in advance, and a container of equipment including rowing machines, exercise bikes and physiotherapy mats was shipped to their hotel. The canoeists and kayakers, who competed at Shunyi Park, an hour outside of Beijing, had a couple of common rooms at their hotel, complete with big screen TVs tuned to the CBC feed, and a poker table. The head of the federation even made a run into the city to fill the paddlers’ orders for souvenirs.

Shunyi Park

None of that, however, guarantees a medal-winning performance. And even the most confident athlete can come up short when it really matters. Adam van Koeverden, winner of a gold and bronze in Athens, was a heavy favourite to defend his 500-m kayak Olympic championship, and add another in the 1000-m. A dominant force on the World Cup circuit, he had lost just one race all season, finishing third.

But in the 1000-m tilt, van Koeverden started strong, and then faltered badly in the final 250 m, falling to eighth place. Crushed and humiliated, the 26-year-old stood before the media and asked for the nation’s forgiveness. “I hate watching athletes apologize after poor performances, but now I know why they do it,” he says, eyes fixed firmly on his paddle. “Because there was a lot of pressure on me and that pressure amounted to expectations back home. I always talk about how Canadian athletes can be inspiring and motivating and I didn’t contribute to that.”

Twenty-four hours later, after five cold showers, innumerable pep talks from his teammates, and a night spent tossing and turning, van Koeverden won silver in the K1-500-m. It was a redemption of sorts. “When I got out of bed, I wrote down things that I wanted to be today. I said I wanted to be strong, confidant, triumphant, and the last one was Adam–to be myself–because I wasn’t yesterday.”