photo by the canadian press

Canadian athletes stay healthy and find success at Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO — Sporting white pants, a blue jean jacket and black ballcap, decathlon champion Damian Warner proudly waved the Maple Leaf as he entered the Olympic Stadium as Canadian flag-bearer.

The image was a fitting one to wrap up a very successful Olympics for Canadian athletes, who made 24 trips to the podium while staying clear of COIVD-19 complications.

Track cyclist Kelsey Mitchell sent the Canadians out on a high note, winning gold in the women’s sprint competition.

That gave Canada seven gold, six silver and 11 bronze medals in Tokyo. Those numbers are significant.

The 24 total medals set a new standard for Canada in a non-boycotted Olympics, while the seven gold tied the nation’s output at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The only time Canada took home more hardware was in the 1984 Los Angeles Games when Canadian athletes won 10 gold and 44 total medals. Those games were boycotted by 14 Eastern Bloc countries, including the Soviet Union and East Germany.

Canada finished 11th both in the official medal standings and the overall medal count.

The United States won three gold medals on the final day of competition to pass China for the top spot in the medal standings. The U.S. finished with 39 golds to China’s 38.

The overall medal race wasn’t even close. The Americans finished with 112, with China well in the distance at 88.

No doubt sweating up a storm in the muggy 32 C conditions, Warner — who entered 45th out of 206 countries — was sandwiched between Qatar and Gabon as flag-bearers formed a large circle on the infield.

Volunteers held flags for countries that did not have athletes present at the ceremony. Many athletes left Japan shortly after their respective competitions.

Warner was later joined by about 120 Canadian athletes, coaches and support staff who marched in the parade.

The ceremony, with its jazzy soundtrack, had a more celebratory feel than the muted and rather sombre opening ceremony over two weeks earlier.

Athletes danced, hugged and took pictures as festive music filled the 48,000-seat venue.

Earlier, Mitchell capped Canada’s Games in an emphatic fashion. The 27-year-old from Sherwood, Park., Alta., beat Ukraine’s Olena Starikova in two straight heats to capture the women’s sprint title.

She won the first race by 0.061 seconds and the second race by 0.064.

Not bad, for someone who only picked up the sport four years ago. Driving a truck as a municipal worker, the former varsity soccer player was looking for a way to get back into competitive sport.

“I hadn’t ridden a track bike before, I’d ridden a bike as a kid but nothing since,” Mitchell said.

“I had dreamt of going to the Olympics, and in the back of my mind you want to go and you want to win. So to have a gold medal, it’s pretty surreal.”

She is the second Canadian woman to win track cycling gold in an individual event following Lori-Ann Muenzer’s sprint gold in 2004.

Mitchell and Muenzer met four years ago, just after Cycling Canada had first approached Mitchell about joining their team. Mitchell’s aunt was in Muenzer’s spin class and suggested she take part to meet the former Olympian.

“I went up and introduced myself and I said, ‘I want to try track cycling and I want to go to the Olympics,’ and she was probably like, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’” said Mitchell. “But she was super nice and was like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’

“It was a long time ago. It feels like it was a really long time ago, but I guess it was only four years.”

Elsewhere at the velodrome, Calgary’s Allison Beveridge finished ninth in the women’s omnium.

The only other event featuring Canadians on the final day was the men’s marathon, where simply finishing the race was no mean feat. Thirty men in the field of 106 didn’t finish.

Ben Preisner was the top Canadian, finishing 46th in his Games debut. Calgary’s Trevor Hofbauer was 48th, while Cam Levins, of Black Creek, B.C., hung with the lead group through the first half of the race, but faded over the final 10 kilometres to finish 72nd in 2:28.43.

“I really wanted to finish out of respect for a guy like Tristan Woodfine (who qualified but wasn’t selected for the team),” Levins said. “I felt like it was only right to finish this race, and only three of us got to go. And so, yeah, I think that’s kind of what motivated me to stay in.

“It’s hard to call yourself an Olympic athlete if you can’t even finish the race … so, wanting to do my best to get through it no matter how slow or tough the second half was.”

Marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, the defending champion and world record-holder, pulled away over the final 10 kilometres to win gold.

Overall, Team Canada has plenty of reasons to be thrilled with its performance in Tokyo. Warner in the decathlon, the women’s soccer team, Andre De Grasse in the men’s 200 metres and women’s eight rowing crew captured Olympic titles in high-profile events.

Mitchell, swimmer Maggie Mac Neil and weightlifter Maude Charron also topped the podium as Canada’s women Olympians once again made up the vast majority of the medals.

Swimmer Penny Oleksiak won three medals in Tokyo to become Canada’s most decorated Olympian with seven career medals, while De Grasse won three to give him six overall, the most all-time among Canadian men.

But where there is Olympic ecstasy, Olympic agony is rarely far behind. Canada also had its share of close calls and disappointments.

Track cyclist Michael Woods finished just off the podium in the men’s road race on the first day medals were awarded at the Games. Two-time Olympic champion trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan, the women’s 4×400 relay team, weightlifter Boady Santavy, divers Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay, artistic gymnast Ellie Black and even Oleksiak — in two separate races — were among those with fourth-place finishes.

Meanwhile, Canada came up empty in golf and tennis, two sports in which the nation is becoming a power.

“No point or second was ever easily taken from Team Canada,” chef de mission Marnie McBean said.

“We saw there is a knife-edge difference between brilliance and breakdown. It takes bravery to believe in one when you know when you are risking the other.”

Canada’s successes were made more remarkable, however, considering they came with Tokyo in a state of emergency due to a rise on COVID-19 cases. Athletes also had to battle oppressive heat and humidity throughout the Games.

The Canadian Olympic Committee said none of its delegation had tested positive for the virus as of Sunday.

“One of our key goals was to come to Tokyo and to return to Canada COVID-free,” COC chief executive officer David Shoemaker said.

“We’ve approached this as critical for our protection, critical for our performance goals and critical for the protection of our hosts here in Japan.

“We’ve come this far with zero COVID cases among the 840 athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers in the Team Canada delegation.”