The Journey to Wearing the Maple Leaf: Canada Games and Beyond
The journey to the world’s biggest sports stage often takes Canada’s top young athletes through this country’s largest multi-sport competition, the Canada Games. Which future Olympians might be competing at the 2013 edition of the Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke?
It’s easy to picture.
Athletes march proudly behind their flags, excited and anxious about the high level of competition to come. A flaming torch is carried in and a cauldron is lit. The pronouncement is made that the Games are officially open.
Most people would probably imagine a spectacle such as the Opening Ceremony for the Vancouver 2010 or London 2012 Olympic Games. But you would have seen the same if you were in Sherbrooke, Quebec on Friday, August 2 when the city welcomed 4200 of this country’s best young athletes to the 2013 Canada Summer Games.
— Jennifer Heil (@JennHeil) August 2, 2013
For many of those competing in Sherbrooke, the Canada Games will be the highlight of their athletic careers. But for many others, Canada’s highest level multi-sport competition is but a stepping stone to the Olympic Games and one that provides a wealth of experience.
“It really is a mini Olympics,” says Catriona Le May Doan, three-time Olympic medallist in long track speed skating who is anchoring TSN’s two weeks of coverage.
Before she ever set foot on Olympic ice, she got her first taste of a multi-sport games in Saguenay, Quebec in 1983 when she was just 12 years old and won a bronze medal in short track speed skating as a member of Saskatchewan’s 3000m relay team. Four years later she was back with one focus – to win medals. She returned home from Cape Breton with silver and bronze.
Five years after that Le May Doan made her Olympic debut at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville where she wasn’t a complete fish out of water.
“It introduces you to the ceremony, staying in a village, wearing accreditation, getting to your venue, the logistics of an Olympic Games,” says Le May Doan. “You draw on the fact that ‘hey I’ve been in this situation.”
The list of Canada Games alumni can read like a who’s who of Canadian Olympic heroes, from Gaétan Boucher to Lennox Lewis to Steve Nash to Alexandre Despatie to Adam van Koeverden to Jenn Heil to Sidney Crosby. A true superstar when he scored the Golden Goal at Vancouver 2010, Crosby got plenty of attention from both media and spectators when he was the captain of Team Nova Scotia at the 2003 Canada Winter Games in neighbouring New Brunswick.
Just three years before Olympic rookie Marianne St-Gelais won a pair of silver medals in Vancouver, she dominated the competition at the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse, winning four gold and one silver. Also in Whitehorse was Marie-Philip Poulin who won bronze with Team Quebec before scoring the gold medal-winning goal for the Canadian women’s hockey team in 2010.
Ryan Cochrane won five swimming medals at the 2005 Canada Summer Games, including gold in the 1500m freestyle, the event in which he would win Olympic bronze just three years later in Beijing and silver in London. Judoka Antoine Valois-Fortier, a gold medallist in Whitehorse, has credited his Canada Games experience and the support he received with helping him to win bronze in his Olympic debut at London 2012.
It is because of successes like these that the Canadian Olympic Foundation has committed to investing in and sponsoring the Canada Games over the next four years.
“The Canada Games are an essential part of our country’s sport system and our athletes’ journey to the Olympic Games,” said Canadian Olympic Committee President and Canadian Olympic Foundation Chair Marcel Aubut when the financial partnership was announced in July. “[It] is about supporting future Olympians and strengthening Canada’s sport system at all levels, which is critical if we want to consistently raise our game to the top of the podium.”
“Olympians are not produced overnight,” said Valois-Fortier about the partnership. “It takes dedication, resources and proper funding at all the pivotal stages of an athlete’s career.”
Just like the Olympic Games, the Canada Games are held every two years, alternating between summer and winter. The first Canada Winter Games were held in 1967, coinciding with the centennial year of the country’s confederation. The first Canada Summer Games followed in 1969. Thus far, all ten provinces have played host and in 2007, Yukon became the first territory to welcome the nation’s top young athletes.
One of the questions asked of any Olympic host city is: what will be the legacy? The Canada Games are no different. Venues that are specially constructed need a post-Games purpose, and often that is the development of future Canadian stars. Athletes from smaller cities such as Whitehorse, Kamloops and Summerside now have access to world-class facilities in their own backyards.
“Everybody’s looking at not just what can happen during these two weeks, but what will this community take from it and they’re looking forward,” says Le May Doan, who also sits on the Board of Directors for the Canada Games Council.
The weekend of August 10-11 will see the athletes of week one depart while the athletes who will compete in week two move into the Athletes’ Village. No matter how they perform or what colour they wear – whether it’s Ontario red or Quebec blue or Manitoba black and gold – they are sure to value their time at the Canada Games as much as Le May Doan, who still has all of her Saskatchewan green jackets, including that Canada Games gear from 1983.
“For young athletes as they start to work into their sport and go past that community level, it’s a goal for most to make the Canada Games, to be one of the best in their province or territory. And growing up wearing your province’s colours, that’s a huge huge accomplishment.”
They will also value the friendships that will be sparked in Sherbrooke, some of which may continue when many of those provincial shields on team jackets are eventually replaced with maple leafs.
— Team Manitoba (@TeamToba) August 4, 2013