What Does It Take?
Olympic medals result from an alchemical combination of talent, support and hard work — and success is never guaranteed. The crucial ingredient may be the ability to embrace years of sacrifice
With the Olympics starting this month, all eyes are on our Tokyo-bound athletes – and, in many cases, their medal chances. But as Paul Gains points out, reaching an Olympic podium in track and field is a rare feat that, for most athletes, comes (if it comes at all) only after many years of preparation, trial and repeated failure. He spoke to many whose accomplishments grace our history and who spoke candidly about what they gave up along the way.
With the Olympics set to begin on July 23, the rush is on to label anyone demonstrating competitive fortitude a medal contender. National record holders and medallists at international events such as the Pan American, Commonwealth and fisu Games are thrust into the spotlight in the sometimes unjustified belief that an Olympic medal is likely. If only it were that simple. There is an enormous gap between success at these events and an Olympic or World Championship podium finish. Let’s face it: Olympic medals are hard to come by, so we must salute those who overcome the odds.
In the 17 iaaf (now World Athletics) world championships that have been held since Helsinki hosted the inaugural event in 1983, Canada has won 36 medals, for an average of 2.11 medals per championships. That includes a record eight medals at the 2015 worlds in Beijing, lowering the average from the remaining 16 meetings to fewer than two. The total number of medals won by Canadian track-and-field athletes at Olympic Games during the same period is 20, for an average of 2.22 medals per Olympics.
The major shoe companies understand the challenge better than anybody, which is why they build medal bonuses into athlete contracts. Depending on the event – and with the Olympics being the ultimate objective – they might pay around us$ 200,000 for a gold medal, us$ 100,000 for silver and us$ 50,000 for bronze.
Clearly, the odds of winning a medal are long. Thrusting athletes into the spotlight as potential medallists not only puts unnecessary pressure on them, but is a disservice to those who succeed just by making a final.
“Everybody thinks they are working hard,” says 1992 Olympic 110m hurdles champion Mark McKoy, countering the belief that one merely has
to train hard. “But you know what the proof is? Getting on the podium. Most athletes don’t make it out of the first round. They get there, they compete, it’s lovely to be there, it’s a great experience and that’s it. To make it to the final is exponentially more work.”
In his Olympic debut at the 1984 Los Angeles edition, McKoy made the final, but hit the first hurdle and wound up a disappointed fourth. Four years later, he was seventh. It took three tries before he struck gold, so when he’s asked what sacrifices one must make, the Torontonian laughs. “You sacrifice basically everything,” he says. “Basically life, if you think about it. The first level of sacrifice is the amount of work it takes to get to the Olympic
When he’s asked what sacrifices one must make, McKoy laughs. “Basically everything,” he says
Games. It’s exponentially harder to go from being an Olympian, which is a huge achievement, but it’s nothing compared to making a final.”
McKoy won the Commonwealth Games in both 1982 and 1986. Following the disappointment of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he uprooted his young family and moved to Britain to train with rival and former world record holder Colin Jackson and the legendary British hurdles coach Malcolm Arnold. For McKoy, leaving Canada temporarily was a sacrifice worth making. Having his best friend and training partner with him at the Olympics definitely helped.
These days, most of the Canadian athletes who end up on the medal podium at worlds or an Olympic Games are spending a considerable amount of time training outside Canada. Melissa Bishop-Nriagu has been a notable exception. When she shocked the world with a silver medal performance in the 2015 World Championships 800m final, she did it from a training base in Windsor, Ont., and with her longtime Canadian coach, the late Dennis Fairall.
This wasn’t her first major competition, however, as she debuted at the 2012 Olympics in London. “It was certainly nerve-racking,” Bishop-Nriagu remembers of those London Games. “I mean, I was naive to everything at that age. I just went in expecting I would get out of the heats because I had done so well nationally. I had competed internationally, but not on that stage and not on that level. So it was a heartbreak, because I didn’t advance out of the heats. But looking back, I was so new to that scene. I was just a baby. Why would I be expected to get out of the first round or the second round? That would be a huge thing.”
Her London experience, which had been partially funded by residents of her hometown of Eganville, Ont., motivated her to improve her training, and she and coach Fairall made changes to her program by adding more mileage, more speed and better nutrition. The resulting body composition changes, she says, proved helpful. She also benefited from consultations with a sports psychologist. “I think I just had a full-on focus,” she explains. “I wasn’t a student athlete anymore. I was strictly an athlete. By the time I got to the 2016 Games, I had experience. I had been on all the major championship teams since 2012, and I had worked my way up, gained a little bit more experience and a lot more confidence.
“My social life changed, certainly. But I also matured as an athlete, and I didn’t want to go out every night. I realized how important sleep was, and how much better I could train and perform off of sleep.”
Bishop-Nriagu admits she has missed weddings, funerals, birthdays and other important occasions of people close to her because of training and competitive commitments. In Rio, she ran what she calls the best race of her life, breaking her national record with 1:57.02, but finishing fourth behind South Africa’s
“Looking back, I was so new to that scene,” says Bishop. “I was just a baby.
Why would I be expected to get out of the first round?”
Caster Semenya, Francine Nyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya. (All three medalists have since been identified as 46xy dsd athletes – those with differences of sexual development – and must take medication to suppress their naturally-elevated testosterone if they want to compete in the 800m.)
In 2018, Bishop-Nriagu and her husband, Osi Nriagu, became the proud parents of a beautiful daughter, Corinne. Athletes often talk about their sacrifices, but as a mother, Bishop-Nriagu has other concerns. “It is a very selfish career,” she acknowledges. “For instance, my two-and-a-halfyear-old still sleeps with a soother at night. I am OK with it. At some point it has to go, but I need my sleep at night, and my husband works shift work. We have decided we are going to put it off [weaning Corinne off the soother] until after Tokyo. And that is so selfish of me to say, because she will be three by then. But the amount of sleep I get at night is so critical right now to my recovery and how I perform.”
When told of Bishop-Nriag u’s parent al dilemma, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep laughs. “You can get braces!” she says. Lopes-Schliep, who earned the 2008 Olympic 100m hurdles bronze in Beijing and the world championships silver medal a year later in Berlin, can afford to be amused, since she happens to be married to an orthodontist, Bronsen Schliep.
Off the track, Lopes-Schliep’s path to her medal collection was littered with obstacles. Since childhood, she has lived with lipodystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes a loss of subcutaneous fat. It gave her an extremely muscular appearance, and as she transformed into a world-class athlete, what began as bullying at her Whitby, Ont., junior high school evolved into suspicion that she was using performance-enhancing drugs.
At the 2009 world championships semifinals in Berlin, against normal protocols, she was selected for doping control immediately after crossing the line. With only two and a half hours until the final, it is inexcusable to bother an athlete for a urine sample. Two days earlier, doping control officers had also turned up at Lopes-Schliep’s hotel room for a surprise test. This obviously challenged her concentration. “I was able to medal in Beijing, and then I went to Berlin,” she recalls. “It was almost like I had an X on my back: ‘Oh, she’s doing drugs,’ even though right now [in 2021], due to my genetics, I am still ‘ buff.’ But back then, I felt I had an X on my back: ‘OK, she’s got to get tested,’ and in the middle of a championship, and they want to test me between the semi and final. When did you hear of that?
“I had somebody following me around and running around after me [during the warmup]. I said, ‘I have got to warm up. I have a job to do. I have got to do drills, to get ready for the final.’ I was very strong mentally and stayed focused. Who knows what could have been? I believe everything happens for a reason. The following year I won the Diamond League title and was number one in the world. Too bad it wasn’t a [world] championship year.”
Today she and Schliep and their two young daughters reside in Lincoln, Neb., where they were both varsity athletes at the University of Nebraska. As a Husker, she finished second in the ncaa 100m hurdles final in three consecutive years, from 2004 to 2006.
Remarkably, she was selected for the 2004
“I have travelled the world, but I haven’t seen a lot of it,” says Lopes-Schliep. “You see the airport, you see the hotel, you see the stadium”
Olympic team while still in university. Despite what casual observers might think, the difference between competing in the ncaa and competing at the Olympics is astonishing. “I was shocked when I walked out [into Athens Olympic Stadium] and there were that many people,” Lopes-Schliep admits. “I was in awe, and I wasn’t focused. Yes, there are a lot of people at ncaas, but not when compared to worlds or the Olympics. Honestly, when you go out there, if you don’t have your nerves under control, they can get the best of you.”
Failing to get out of her heats in Athens, she reached the semis at the 2005 Helsinki world championships, but went out in the first round at Osaka in 2007. She was gaining valuable experience, even if she saw these as setbacks at the time. And while many athletes are excited by foreign travel, the reality is they are not there to sightsee, and Lopes-Schliep’s approach to travel was appropriately professional. “I hung out in my room during competition,” she says. “I have been to Paris, but have never been to the Eiffel Tower. But that was a sacrifice I was willing to make, because I wanted to run well. I have travelled the world, but I haven’t seen a lot of it. You see the airport, you see the hotel, you see the stadium.” When viewed from this perspective, the life of a world-class athlete doesn’t sound so exciting.
Family and friends sometimes raise well-meaning concerns that can challenge athletes’ resolve. That’s something Lynn Kanuka experienced when she made the decision to leave her pre-med studies at the University of Saskatchewan and accept a track scholarship at San Diego State, back in the 1980s. The transition to international runner was natural for her, but not for her family.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘sacrifice’ – it was a decision that was made,” Kanuka explains. “And a conviction. There were people, including my parents and my siblings, saying, ‘What are you doing? You are living in poverty. OK, you did running, you got your school paid for, but, really, what is this?’ Those were more the things that played on my brain – a more traditional life. I loved what we were doing. There were times, though, where it was like, ‘What are we doing?’”
Winning the 1984 Olympic 3,000m bronze medal was Kanuka’s reward for
pursuing these extraordinary dreams. It was crucial to surround herself with supportive people. Together with her then-husband, Paul Williams, her lifestyle evolved to the point where success had become an obsession. “I had a part-time job to pay the bills,” she says. “I was in a retail fitness store and had to run home on pavement at night. I didn’t like my job. I switched it up sometimes, because the idea was to get off my feet, if possible. I served tables a lot, and that meant working at night, and I was already tired from a day of training. But we did the best we could.
“We had a futon and a coffee table. Our friends, who weren’t in this world, were furthering their regular way of life – careers, and more traditional kinds of lives, and we wanted to do what we knew was our passion.”
One thing Kanuka sees as a potential distraction, which didn’t exist when she was competing, is social media. And she worries about this, both in her role as coach of Olympian Natasha Wodak and as a member of Athletics Canada’s board of directors. “Times are different now,” she says. “Maybe knowing every second what someone else is doing on the other side of the planet, in terms of training, is not such a good idea.” (In fairness, social media is one of many ways that sponsored athletes create value for brands, and in some cases is even required in contracts.)
Along with that Olympic bronze medal, Kanuka set Canadian records at 1,500m (4:00.27 in 1985) and at 10k on the road (31:44 in 1989, a record that still stands). She won the 1986 Commonwealth 1,500m gold and claimed the individual bronze medal at the 1989 World Cross Country Championships. Echoing McKoy’s sentiments, she advocates young athletes getting experience at international events.
“The 1983 fisu games was my first international experience,” says Kanuka. “This was amazing. It’s like a mini-Olympics for the world-class-level students out there. That opened my eyes. And then making the 1983 world championships team and being out there. l was a little Saskatchewan girl, and each experience led from one to another. It definitely doesn’t happen overnight.”
Overnight success is certainly rare. Consider the career of the Portland, Ore.-based Moh Ahmed, who came up with the performance of a lifetime to claim the 5,000m bronze for Canada at the 2019 world championships in Doha. The performance was the climax of a lengthy international career.
Ahmed had struggled home 18th in the 2012 Olympic 10,000m in what was a veritable baptism by fire. True, he had represented Canada multiple times at world cross-country and at the 2010 world junior championships, but that Olympic experience at age 21 served as inspiration:
“I remember coming back from 2012, and I was disappointed with my f inish and the way I ran,” he recalls. “I wanted more. I was able to go back to my training base and look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve got to get better.’ Pressure makes diamonds.”
A ninth-place finish at the following year’s world championships in Moscow was more to his liking, but two years later at the 2015 worlds in Beijing, it was the same picture. He’d be within striking distance going into the final 600 m, and then got dropped. A 12th-place finish in the Beijing 5,000m final was yet another disappointment.
Upon finishing fourth at the Rio Olympics (once again being near the front at the bell), Ahmed was reduced to tears. But now, he looks at that performance through a different lens. “I look back at 2016, and people say, ‘Oh, you were so close,’” Ahmed says. “Well, yes, I was, and coming fourth wasn’t a bad thing. I needed that to be the athlete I am today. You need to fail. You have to be well equipped to know how to harness the pressure properly. I think that was where I failed in 2016. I was so excited! I wanted it so bad, and I didn’t know how to channel that energy in a productive way. I was too nervous, too anxious.”
Most recently, Ahmed has been living a monastic existence in Portland, Ore., training with the Bowerman Track Club. “What we do is a 24-hour situation,” he says. “We might go out there to train for three to four hours’ actual training during the day,” he says. “But there are other things you have to take care of: physiotherapy, massage, sleep, eating – all those things are part of the life of dedication, living right to help you perform. It’s kind of a monk’s life, I would say.”
Canada will have a fine team at these Tokyo Olympics. As the personal histories of these medallists have made clear, earning a medal at this level requires more than having trained hard. Everyone in the final is fit. Athletes must avail themselves of every opportunity to peak, physically and mentally, and that comes with experience. So spare a thought for the athletes who appear to struggle in Tokyo, because who knows which ones will overcome the odds to become medallists in the future?
“I think that was where I failed in 2016,” says Ahmed. “I wanted it so bad, and I didn’t know how to channel that energy in a prodctive way. I was too anxious”