After the Flame: My Rio Recap

RioThe Rio Games will go down as Canada’s best-ever in a non-boycotted Olympics, with 22 medals, including 4 gold. This equals a verbal prediction I made before the Games (I have witnesses!) based on nothing more than a feeling.   It’ll be no surprise then when I tell you that I personally enjoyed the 2016 Games more than any other Summer Games I have watched.  Part of it, of course, has to do with the great Canadian stories that unfolded – Oleksiak, De Grasse, Drouin, McLennan and the women’s rugby and soccer teams among them.  But part of it was also the unprecedented comprehensive television coverage (although more doesn’t necessarily mean better – more on that a bit later) that gave everyone’s remote a workout over the past two weeks.

Oleksiak, de Grasse and the future

The “rise from obscurity to stardom” narrative is one we usually associate with our American neighbours.  Then came Toronto’s 16-year-old phenom Penny Oleksiak and her four-medal breakout that put Canada’s swim program front and centre on the world stage.  It’s clear no one, including the Canadian Olympic Committee, expected her success and that of her young teammates.   The arrival of Markham sprinter Andre De Grasse was slightly more predictable, although I’m not sure anyone pencilled in three medals for him with certainty.

The challenge now for the COC will be the heightened expectations for the swim and athletic teams in 2020.  Anything short of gold for Oleksiak and de Grasse will be seen as disappointing in many circles.  And just as there was this year, there’ll be a new group of precocious young athletes ready in 2020 to challenge them.  The other challenge will be to try to replicate the unprecedented success of our female athletes in Rio.  The COC is certainly doing something right in this respect, it’s now a matter of staying ahead of the rest of the world.

Competition was top-notch – until officials got involved

Make no mistake, the doping bans of one-third of the Russian team did impact the competition.  Russia’s medal tally fell from 78 in the London Games four years ago to 56, a roughly proportional drop. Even though many people (myself included) believe Russia should not have been in Rio in any capacity, the limited bans by the individual federations did make the playing field a little fairer – just perhaps not as fair as most of us would have liked.

Much of the controversy in these Games laid with the IAAF.  The decision to allow the Americans a re-run in the 4 x 100 women’s relay heats.  The disqualification of the US men’s relay team in the 4 x 100 final resulting in a Canadian bronze medal.  And the ridiculous, clown-show awarding then unawarding of bronze to Canada’s Evan Dunfee after a controversial bump in the 50k race walk (For the record, I believe the contact by the Japanese athlete was intentional, and will maintain in perpetuity Dunfee should have a medal, his own feelings aside).

While we all as Canadians appreciate and admire Dunfee’s sportsmanship, and I’m sure that he contributed to and signed off on the statement released in his name, it was very Navigator-esque (anyone in the communications and public relations industry will know what that means), and appeared to me to be something higher-ups likely pushed for as controversy was growing.  I have no access to evidence that would either support or debunk this, but it’s my professional opinion it was a “collaborative” effort.

In the end, it seems it was a wash for Canada.  But bottom line — once officials get involved in the competition at the Olympics, never trust the right decision will be made.

Olympic golf was great, and can be even better

By all accounts, the return of Olympic golf was a success.  While I found the course itself(save for the finishing three holes) was sub-standard, it produced two worthy champions.  I have no problem with repeating the individual stroke play format in 2020 in Tokyo.

But here’s my suggestion: start the men’s and women’s golf competition each a day earlier, which would allow for a two-day match play team event at the end — one man, one woman, top 16 countries based on their individual scores, single elimination 18-hole, fourball or foursomes format.  The overall Olympic schedule needs to be tweaked to include more compelling events on the last two days, and this would help.

Canada acquitted itself quite well in Olympic golf, with Graham DeLaet and Brooke Henderson both in contention.  It was painful to watch Henderson, only 18, struggle in difficult conditions in the third round to a 75, after her magnificent 64 just a day earlier.  Her trouble on the back nine in strong winds kept her off the podium. As heartwarming as it was to see her sister on her bag,  I can’t help but wonder if Henderson wouldn’t have benefitted from having a more experienced caddy who could have been a steadying influence and helped her grind through those tough conditions and maybe save a couple of strokes that, in the end, made the difference.   It was a learning experience for both of them to be sure, and Brooke will be a threat to win any event she’s in for years to come, including 2020 in Tokyo.

Where TV coverage fell down

Credit where credit is due – coverage on the main network was solid on the whole.  Ron MacLean, Scott Russell, David Amber and Andi Petrillo performed well, and the Canadian play-by-play callers were quite competent.  But CBC and its partners over-relied on international/British coverage of too many events, and I’ve heard numerous complaints.  Given they’re sharing the rights with Sportsnet and TSN, there’s no excuse not to have Canadian talent describing the efforts of key Canadian athletes.  It was interesting to see that midway through the second week, CBC started using more Australian coverage (it’s unclear if that was sparked by complaints). If the terrible coverage of Mandy Bujold’s elimination match sparked it, I wouldn’t be surprised.  It was at times vitriolic, and only later did we learn Bujold spent the previous night in hospital seriously ill.  I don’t care if the Canadian crews are calling the events from a studio in Toronto, but tell the Canadian stories properly.  I believe there was also a failure on CBC’s part to properly schedule the talent they had available in Rio, something that needs to be remedied for 2020.

The golf coverage on TSN2 was simply atrocious.  Jumping from one golfer to the next without telling the compelling stories of the tournament and the golfers was amateur, to be kind.  We went literally hours at times without updates on Brooke Henderson, the world’s #2 golfer, especially after she fell off the pace in the third round.  That is a failure of the broadcast and commentators to tell the story properly, not a failure of the athlete, let’s be clear.  CBC should carry the Golf Channel coverage in 2020, it’s guaranteed to be more professional that what we were stuck with in Rio.

I hope you enjoyed the TV friendly coverage this time around, because it will be less so until at least 2024 with the next three Olympics in Asia, with 12 hour time differences.  On top of the ongoing battle against doping, the Olympics have a real hurdle to overcome in terms of Western sponsorship dollars and TV ratings in the coming years.  Don’t underestimate how big a hurdle that may be for the Olympic movement as a whole.