For an Olympics junkie, this year my pre-Games enthusiasm was subdued.
It wasn’t the negative hype about Rio. To be sure, Brazilian political upheaval, filthy rowing and sailing venues, Zika and rampant street crime were bona fide concerns – but I had lived through airlifting snow to the Vancouver 2010 venues and knew that pre-Games negative hype is often overblown. It wasn’t the doping either (and I am not naïve enough to believe that this particular problem is in any way contained to Russia’s state-sponsored doping program).
No. For me, it was the Marcel Aubut scandal at the Canadian Olympic Committee that was the turning point – although it wasn't much of a surprise. Pretty much everyone who worked in or around the COC over the past six years was familiar with Aubut’s blatantly sexist and harassing behaviour before it went public.
As a feminist, an avid supporter of girls and women in sport and a wannabe female athlete, knowing that the leadership of the COC turned a blind eye to Aubut’s reprehensible treatment of female staff and athletes was beyond disappointing.
Women already compete on a vastly uneven playing field. The gender pay gap in sport is shocking. Sure, there are exceptions, notably tennis players and golfers, and female athletes have successfully lobbied some sports federations and professional events like the X Games to provide equal prize money for men and women. But in general, female athletes earn a tiny percentage of prize money and endorsements of their male counterparts. In 2015 only two women, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, made Forbes’ list of 100 highest-paid athletes.
The Olympics is one place this gender gap is supposed to even out, making the sexual harassment at the COC all the more distasteful.
I cheered Jean-Luc Brassard’s courage and integrity when he stepped down as Canada’s chef de mission for the Rio Games after criticizing the organization’s handling of the scandal, but this bold move made barely a ripple across Canada.
So it was with a huge degree of trepidation that I tuned into CBC’s (most excellent) coverage of the Rio Games.
Enter Jen Kish et al. on day one. I have watched a lot of sports in my life, but I had never seen Rugby 7s before. These women blew me away with their strength, agility, accuracy and teamwork. Wow.
Okay, I was hooked.
Next up, Penny Oleksiak. That girl! Her aw-shucks manner and old-fashioned Canadian humility reeled me in.
Our Canadian women continued to punch above their weight, carrying the team and the pride of the nation for the next nine days, which culminated for me in the women’s team pursuit cycling bronze medal on August 13. Georgia Simmerling is one of my favourites – not only does she come from my hometown, but she made history in Rio by becoming the first Canadian athlete to compete in three different sports in three Olympic Games. An alpine ski racer-turned-ski-cross-racer, Simmerling only turned to track cycling in 2015!
Our men were no slouches, either, eventually winning eight of the 22 medals Canada took home from Rio.
As a former COC press attaché, I was paying close attention to how our team members presented themselves to the press gallery and the world. Boy was I impressed. We were well spoken, respectful and appreciative – in victory and in defeat. That’s not something you can say about all the athletes at these Games, and it is something for which t the hardworking folks now running the show at the COC can take credit. They continue to do a fabulous job preparing athletes for the media gauntlet at the Games.
But for me, the real story was the Canadian women. They gave their all and they did it with grace and strength. They are my heroes. Bravo! Take that, Marcel Aubut.