James Lawton: Canada finally has its golden moment – even if America 'owns' most podiums

When it all means too much you can't perform. It's an absurd approach to sport
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The Independent Online

It wasn't necessary to be an aficionado of freestyle skiing – indeed you might even have believed that as a rival to the classic downhill it has all the aesthetic properties of a disturbance in a box of washing flakes – to understand the scale of Alexandre Bilodeau's achievement here in the small hours of yesterday morning.

We are talking, let's make no mistake here, about nothing less than the removal of an extremely large monkey from the back of a nation which in normal circumstances is arguably the most moderate, unassuming and compassionate in the entire western world.

However, this is not a description that might have been fired off so easily at any moment before the 22-year-old from Quebec made his late and brilliantly nerveless run for moguls gold.

Before then, Canadians – at least those who hadn't retreated to cabins in the woods with a bottle or two of whisky for the duration of the Olympic hoopla – were utterly obsessed with the need for one of their own to stand on top of the podium for the first time in three attempts on home soil.

You could see the need etched on the face of every athlete wearing the Maple Leaf. Now it has happened, it could be that we will see a different and more recognisable face of Canada, one less contorted by the need to win and, let's get right down to it, score some kind of psychological victory over their giant American neighbours.

Much offence was apparently caused here with a passing reference to the fact that when the athlete who was considered the nation's strongest candidate to score the first gold, another moguls skier Jennifer Heil, was beaten down to silver last Saturday night it was by, "of all people", an American.

This wasn't an anti-American slur, merely the unassailable statement that the extent of cultural domination down the years by the behemoths to the south has stored up quite a lot of repressed longing this side of the 49th parallel. As expressed here at the XXI Winter Olympics, the principal one can be edited down easily enough to read, "We gotta beat the Americans."

Why not? The problem is that such ambition can be somewhat disfiguring. One Canadian of not exactly self-withering sensitivity puts it quite succinctly. "Of course we want to win, everyone wants to win, don't they? But if the obsession gets too great, this need to get one over the Americans, well, I think we're in danger of losing touch with who we are."

That danger, some believe, has been most exposed in the tragedy of the Georgian luger during which the perception, rightly or wrongly, has been that the death of a young athlete provoked, among other reactions, regret that it wiped away the advantage carefully built up by the Canadian team.

Some Canadians have objected fiercely to the categorising of the team's "Own the Podium" slogan as something more sinister than a drive to raise the funds necessary for the athletes of the home nation to perform in optimum circumstances before their own people.

All those a little more detached from the argument can only hope that the success of Bilodeau, and the passionate and touching support of his 28-year-brother Frederic, who suffers from cerebral palsy, will smooth some of the edges of a drive to win that was indeed beginning to amount to a national obsession.

It also might serve as a powerful lesson to British attitudes on the approach of the London Olympics. After the heavy financing of the success at the Beijing Games, expectations surrounding British athletes will no doubt be scarcely less than those facing the Canadian contenders here.

Bilodeau's achievement was to absorb the pressure and deliver the performance of his life. In the circumstances it was a remarkable effort graphically defined by his coach, Dominick Gauthier, who said: "Alex knew it had to be balls to the wall. He had to do his back double full on top. He landed perfectly and just ripped the gold medal."

It was fine tribute to a champion who seized his moment – and was given a poignant perspective by one of Canada's greatest athletes, high jumper Debbie Brill.

Brill, a world-record holder, was submerged in the pressure of Montreal in 1976, but it is her memory of the competition in Munich, when she was still a teenager, that is maybe the most timely reminder of what can happen when the pressure crushes a talented athlete. She recalls: "Ilona Gusenbauer of Austria was supposed to win. She was the world record holder and had a distinguished career. But she wanted the medal so badly it destroyed her. I saw it happen up close, and I will never forget the look of hopelessness that covered her face.

"I looked into Gusenbauer's face and thought, 'This is life and death for this person. It means too much – you can't perform well like this'. Could anyone convince her that the world wouldn't end if she lost? She was crushed when she stood on the podium to receive her bronze medal. At the climax of her event her look said, 'What's the use?' I knew then that she was defeated. When it was over, she cried so hard it was terrible. I stood on the side of the track and thought, 'This is an absurd approach to sport'."

Here, however, the kid from Quebec has managed with great resolve to take away the most desperate hopes of much of his nation. It is no doubt cause for great celebration. And maybe to relax, just a little.

No match for the lugers' courage

In its time the luge event has taken much ridicule. Why would anyone slide down a perilous track of ice borne by something little more substantial than a tea tray? We know a little better now after the lugers, for the most tragic of reasons, for a few hours of brilliant performance and nerve became the focus and set the heart-beat of these Olympics.

Purists of the sport no doubt regretted that among the consequences of a fatal accident was the necessity to shorten the track, and take away the possibilities of the most spectacular potential of the leading contenders.

However, the rest of us could only marvel at the courage and the technique of men, including Britain's A J Rosen, who did, four times, what they believe they were born to do.

Nothing we will see in these Olympics can, you have to suspect, be quite so compelling – or greater cause for admiration.

How to get the buses running on time

Among ITS other difficulties, the Vancouver Organising Committee is having to deal with a rash of complaints about the bus service. It shouldn't feel too bad about this. Olympic buses, with the notable exception of the massively staffed Beijing operation, rarely run smoothly.

For some the grisliest memory will always be of a young lady driving, somewhat against the clock, to the rowing centre south of Atlanta in 1996 where Steve Redgrave was shortly to make another contribution to sports history.

Suddenly she pulled to the hard shoulder of a six-lane freeway and burst into tears.

The problem, she said, was that no one had told her the traffic lanes were quite so narrow.

More dramatic, though, was the time a New York state trooper demanded that a striking driver moved shivering spectators from the Olympic site in Lake Placid in 1980.

The driver said that he was awaiting instructions from his union.

The trooper was unimpressed, reached for his revolver and pointed it at the head of the driver, and asked how much he would like his head blown off. Of course it was a short-term solution – but very effective.

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