7 August 2008

It's that time again

Yes, it's almost here: the beginning of the quadrennial competition to see which nation on earth has the best drug program. We can expect the Olympics to dominate the news for the next little while- actually, it has been dominating the news a fair bit even now. There are questions, analyses, and even the occasional history, and, naturally, polls.

A common question that pops up is: "Who is/was (your country's name here)'s greatest Olympian?" For myself, I believe my answer would be simple: Canada's greatest Olympian was Lawrence Lemieux. I imagine most people who read that name were immediately struck with one or two questions: Who? and: Why?

Lawrence Lemieux was a sailor in the solo sailboat class. In 1980 he came in third in a world championship and was looking at a possible silver medal at the Moscow Olympics. Unfortunately, those games were boycotted by Canada, and he did not get his shot. By 1988 he was in Seoul, hunting for a medal. On September 24 he was sailing in the fifth of seven races in his class and was in second place when a squall hit. Winds were gusting and the waves grew, and boats began to overturn. Lemieux saw the two man crew of a Singapore boat go into the water when their boat capsized. He also saw that the rescue boats would not arrive in time. Without a second thought he changed course and picked up the two men. He held position until a rescue boat came and relieved him of the two men, and then he rejoined his race, all hope of victory gone.

Lemieux's actions on September 24 went largely unnoticed by the Canadian press, for the Ben Johnson scandal broke, and our papers were full of him, and not Lemieux. In addition, sailing is not one of the prestige sports of the Olympics. It's participants do not get great exposure, nor contracts, nor endorsements. They do it for the love of the sport.

Lemieux did receive some recognition, and something rarer than a gold medal. In a private ceremony he was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal. At the presentation IOC president Samaranch said: "By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal.'' Lemieux is one of only nine people to ever receive this honour.

In today's era, when professionals are regularly sent to the Olympics, when athletes have hissy fits if their demands are not met, where millions of dollars can be riding on victory, Lemieux's actions stand out as something else, something greater. Lemieux wanted the gold or silver medal, but knew there were more important things than Olympic medals and dreams of glory. He has given our country a great honour, for many countries send athletes, many even win the medals. But, thanks to Lemieux, Canada stands among the select few to send a hero.

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