Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Our athletes do feel pressure

They can no longer deny the weight of a nation's expectations

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VANCOUVER -- Christine Nesbitt finally came clean -- to herself.

She'd already won gold in the women's 1,000 by a hair, in an event she dominated leading up to the Vancouver Games. And she'd just stepped off the Richmond Oval after finishing off the podium in the 1,500 on Sunday, a distance both Nesbitt and teammate Kristina Groves were projected to finish one-two. Groves was the two, Nesbitt placed sixth.

"I just wanted to go into this race and enjoy it because that 1,000 was not fun," Nesbitt said. "I think I didn't acknowledge how much stress and pressure I had on myself to perform. It took a lot of energy out of me. Even yesterday I was really tired through my pre-race skate."

Finally, a frank admission of what I believe has been an unspoken truth about the 2010 Games: Denial.

Not in all cases, mind you. The effervescent skeleton hero Jon Montgomery, the pride of Russell -- they're probably putting up a billboard outside of town as we speak -- is living, strutting, beer-chugging proof that some athletes are immune to pressure. They eat the stuff for breakfast.

But already cracks are beginning to appear elsewhere, such as Mellissa Hollingsworth's tearful apology for, in her words, "letting down the entire country" after her error-plagued final run led to a fifth-place finish. Or fellow speedskater Denny Morrison, upon placing a disappointing ninth in the men's 1,500 on Saturday, lashing out at the much-debated Own the Podium program for not allowing him to train with American Shani Davis.

Morrison backed off his criticism the next day, explaining that he spoke out of raw anger. "I was just frustrated after the race, obviously," he said.

Just as obvious, however, are instances where some Canadian medal favourites -- who have been hyped incessantly in the days and months leading up to the Vancouver Games -- have been overwhelmed in the moment. Even when, as in Nesbitt's case, the 1,000 result was still golden.

"I thought if I didn't acknowledge it (the pressure) it wasn't there," she reasoned. "I don't know if I would have changed how I approached my 1,000 either way, because I don't know if I would have acknowledged it if I would have freaked out even more and skated crappier. You just never know."

This is another intriguing aspect of the Vancouver Games we may never know: What was the impact of not just broadcasting lofty medal expectations, but the simultaneous marketing of athletes as television "must-see" events for the giant CTV-Rogers media consortium -- which paid a record $90 million for the Olympic rights, topped up with full-page Globe and Mail ads which essentially scream: "Watch Christine Nesbitt Go For Gold Tonight!!"

No one talks about it much here, but there's hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. The television networks have paid their money and they want ratings. Ratings equal revenue.

Meanwhile, the OTP program has already shelled out well over $100 million for one reason only: podium results.

This is all uncharted territory, especially for Canadian athletes who otherwise toil, and win, in relative obscurity. No doubt, there were a boatload of psychologists who spent the last few years coaching up Canada's athletes, using every mind-meld in the book to help shield them from both external and internal pressures that were coming down the track like a freight train.

Let's be clear: This is not a suggestion that OTP's projections -- despite officials raising the white flag Monday on winning the overall medal standings -- were unrealistic. They weren't. They were based on very real World Cup results in these exact same events over recent years, when Canada matched the Germans and Americans and Russians in the medal count.

Instead, this is merely a suggestion that performing at your best, on home soil, in front of friends and family and countrymen, with the unseen weight of unprecedented expectations and media hype on their shoulders, some Canadian athletes were bound to crack. Said Nesbitt: "This kind of pressure either makes people or breaks people."

Why? Because they're human.

"That's the key word. Human," eloquent Canadian speedskating coach Marcel Lacroix told the Free Press. "What does that mean? It means people have emotions, people have feelings. Suddenly, they feel the pressure. How do you deal with this until you are asked to do it?"

Four years ago, in fact, Lacroix sat down his staff.

"I told them, guys, the Olympics in Canada, this is what it's going to be like. We're going to put our skaters on the line and the only thing that's going to be between them and pressure is a skin suit. It's them alone, on the line. Almost naked in front of the world and, 'I've got to do it.'

"It's me, my skin suit and my race. And you've got to let them go."

Some finish as Olympic medallists. Some finish in tears, or angry at the world.

But don't believe for a second they don't feel this made-in-Canada pressure.

Naked in front of the world, the only happy ending is to wrap themselves in a red and white flag.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2010 C2

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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