EDITOR’S NOTE: This week marks the seventh installment of Olympic Odyssey by Mike Brock, an Olympics television producer for the CBC, a special for Expositor readers.
by Mike Brock
There are many moments from the last few weeks that will stay with me for a really long time. There are the big moments that were impossible to avoid, those moments that everyone shared, like the Canadian women finally reaching the top of the podium in soccer. Or, Andre de Grasse performing on the biggest stage, like he always does. Every Olympics, though, there are athletes, or stories, or victories or defeats that remind me what the Games are all about.
What I’ve cobbled together here are some of those moments.
On the first finals session for the swim meet, an 18-year-old Tunisian made history, but that wasn’t what gave me chills. Seeing pure joy gave me the chills. His completely visceral and vocal reaction to his victory gave me chills. Ahmed Hafnaoui, who was previously unknown outside of the swimming world, and the young man who had been the last qualifier for the Olympic final of the 400 freestyle, beat every single one of the best middle distance swimmers on the planet, from the outside lane. He couldn’t even believe it himself. The only lead he had the whole race was when he touched the wall. He checked the clock, looked around for a source of reality, and then splashed and screamed for the camera in a celebration for the ages.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Simone Biles would be the star of these Olympic Games, with a chance of winning six events. Well, she didn’t come close to those lofty expectations, but she may have accomplished something even more important. Her storylines were shattered on the first day of competition when she pulled out after failing to land a vault properly in the first rotation of the team event. Typical of these times, the rumour clouds quickly formed on social media that the ankle was the reason, but it was much more than that. She pulled out of the event because she wasn’t feeling right, mentally. Imagine driving down a steep hill without brakes. Imagine realizing halfway through a skydive that your parachute isn’t working. That’s what the greatest gymnast of her generation was feeling. And, despite the unrelenting weight of the world upon her, she had the strength to forego the pursuit of her the dream to look after herself. Her courage to do so in such a public way will leave an impact far greater than any number of medals could ever do.
My Favourite Broadcast Team
The Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) provide video and audio feeds for every event at the Olympics. During the first week, when I saw the OBS commentators assigned to the 25-metre air pistol event, I was concerned for the outcome. You see, their names were Richard Drew and Heather Fell.
The Rush of The Rapids
This is one of those sports that I will watch—and love—every four years. And I love it every time. I got home from a shift at about 4 in the morning, and the final for the women’s canoe slalom was on. Imagine Grandpa wearing a Tilley hat, and lily dipping across the lake. This is not that. The power, skill and fearlessness of these athletes chuting down a man-made rapids course, and navigating their bodies and boats through hanging gates is a sight to behold. New Zealander Jessica Fox won this event (as well as a bronze in the kayak slalom) to nobody’s surprise. It was an intense, but graceful, display of athleticism, and I look forward to watching it again in Paris!
A Pair of Golds
Win at all costs. Last man standing. Second place is first loser. None of those sentiments are part of the Olympic ideal, and that has never been more evident than the men’s high jump. After Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi traded successful jumps to a height of 2.37 metres, the final two athletes raised the bar to the Olympic record height of 2.39 metres. Neither man could clear it. When the official was explaining the options to the jumpers, Essa Barshim cut him off to ask if they could both have gold medals. According the rulebook, the official confirmed, it was an option. What followed was the most celebrated tie of all time. Two friends flying to the same height.
Blummen-felt So Good
On the first full day of competition, I was working on the men’s triathlon. Now, I know that everyone can identify with the disciplines involved in participating in triathlon, but I’m not sure that many can identify with the discipline involved in winning the Olympic triathlon. Canada’s Tyler Mislawchuk was in the hunt until the last few laps of the run, so that was the story we were following. But then a group of three broke from the pack. One of the three, Great Britain’s Alex Yee was clearly the most accomplished runner and displayed a level of comfort that led us to believe that he was going to win easily. Don’t believe everything you see. With about two kilometres to go, Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt took over. If you are going to rate world class triathletes in terms of peanut butter types—as one does—then Yee was smooth to Blummenfelt’s chunky. While Yee seemed to glide with every stride, the Norwegian screamed effort with every step. By the time the final 300 metres was in frame, Blummenfelt had opened a lead that surprised even him, and he certainly didn’t hide his own astonishment that he was about to win an Olympic gold medal. It was so pure, and so awesome. He left everything he had on the course. And then a little more after the finish line…but we won’t go into that here.
This one is a personal one. Swimming has been a huge part of my life. When I was eight, I joined the North York Aquatic Club (NYAC). I trained for the Olympics with NYAC. I swam at the Olympic Trials for NYAC. My best friends, including my wife, are NYAC-ers. Both of my fantastic sons swim for NYAC currently. One of my first coaches at NYAC was a man named Murray Drudge. Josh Liendo, the 18-year-old sprint phenom, grew up swimming for NYAC, and for Murray. Last year, just before the pandemic, Murray passed away suddenly. This month, Josh represented Canada at the Olympics, and swam brilliantly, including a 4th place finish as part of the Medley Relay. Josh is a star in the making, and while he didn’t bring any hardware home this time, I know that he’s going to be a great representative for Canada, and NYAC, for a long time. Murray would be proud.