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They become part of the Olympic story: The figure skaters with an ideal career finish, and the bobsled pilot who isn’t given the autonomy she demands, and wants to abandon her team because of it
The Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir story doesn’t quite have the perfect Hollywood ending, because that one would have involved a wedding.
In the movie version, the figure skaters who became partners when they were just young kids, who grew up to become Canadian stars and capped their competitive careers with a second Olympic ice-dance gold, would have announced their retirement in a home-made video and then leaned in for a kiss.
Finally, a nation’s pleas — why won’t they just admit they are in love? — would have been answered.
As it stands, it’s still a pretty Hollywood ending. Virtue and Moir did become Canada’s Sweethearts in Pyeongchang last winter, they did nail the gold with a saucy routine that had even ice-dance skeptics fanning themselves, and they came back this fall to headline a farewell tour of sorts, before announcing this week that they were stepping away from the sport. No doubt TV gigs, coaching opportunities and speaking engagements await, all of them the normal trappings of the second careers of Canadian Olympic heroes.
Kaillie Humphries’ career as a Canadian Olympian, which also seems to have ended this week, came about in an entirely different way. Humphries, the most decorated bobsled pilot in the country’s history — two gold, one bronze — had her attempt to force her release from Team Canada denied by a Calgary court. The case, the result of an ugly split in which Humphries accused a Bobsleigh Canada coach of harassment, evidence of which was not found by a third-party investigator, will now be kicked up to an arbitrator. Canadian officials have said they want Humphries to compete for the program that has helped her achieve such spectacular success. She has said there is no chance of that under its current leadership, and that she wants to be free to race for the United States, where she now lives.
It is some kind of mess, and though such an implosion wasn’t foreseeable when Humphries won the last of those medals in the cold dark of a Korean countryside night last February, there were at least hints of behind-the-scenes friction between the champion and the team of which she was undoubtedly a key part.
But both Olympic stories, the one with the happy ending and the one with something distinctly otherwise, underline a sometimes-uncomfortable truth about the athletes who chase glory under their country’s flag. As much as we — fans, media, the competitors and their organizations — like to get wrapped in the notion of the Olympics as a higher ideal, and distinct from the ruthless world of professional sports, the reality is that they long ago became a cold, hard business.
Canada’s many recent Olympic successes are in part a direct result of this country getting better at that business.
Virtue and Moir were already Canadian legends long before Pyeongchang, with an Olympic gold from Vancouver 2010, three World Championship titles and an Olympic silver from Sochi 2014. But in the build up to the Games in Korea, their partnership was turned into a well-funded organization. In addition to the money received from Skate Canada and Own the Podium, which directs a higher proportion of government support to prospective medal winners, Virtue and Moir were backed by B2ten, a private operation that collects big money from wealthy donors and doles it out to Canada’s elite athletes.
For the three years prior to Pyeongchang, that six-figure support allowed the skaters to relocate from London to Montreal, where they trained with a retinue that included strength coaches, a nutritionist, a physiotherapist, and the usual skate coaches. All of that helped provide the foundation for a project that Virtue and Moir finished perfectly, skating flawlessly at the moments of highest pressure in Korea.
It also could have unravelled had there been friction between the various organizations helping them, but Skate Canada has since said that there was good cooperation between all parties. (Given that the skaters won gold, it would be a shock if anyone said otherwise.)
A lack of collaboration, meanwhile, appears to be at the root of the split between Humphries and Bobsleigh Canada. Bobsled can be a curiously autocratic sport. Countries qualify a certain number of sleds for an Olympics, but the coaching staff decides who pilots and who pushes them; it’s not uncommon for athletes to essentially be benched mid-competition.
Humphries’ long-time brakeman, Heather Moyse, retired after the second of their Olympic gold medals in 2014, and it was no secret that the two were not pals. Moyse declined an invitation to re-join Humphries’ sled for Korea, but then she came out of retirement to work with Alysia Rissling, a pilot heading to her first Olympics.
Humphries would go on to win a bronze medal with brakeman Phylicia George, but after the race it was evident that the journey had not been as smooth as the ice on the track. “This one’s probably the most personal for me, the most emotional,” she said that night last February. There were smiles, but they were tight.
Meanwhile, Rissling and Moyse, who had finished sixth, were elsewhere in the mixed zone, drinking beers, laughing and teasing each other and generally appearing to have the time of their lives. One didn’t need a psychology degree to notice that there must have been some underlying tensions between Humphries and the teammates enjoying themselves so much outside her presence.
Those would explode into the open a few months later, when Humphries alleged hat her treatment by Bobsleigh Canada and three of its leaders amounted to harassment. A third-party review that somehow took more than a year concluded otherwise this week, but Humphries has also sued her long-time team, seeking monetary damages.
It’s hard to know what exactly sparked the rift, but it’s also evident that Humphries clashed with the national team coaches over issues of independence and funding. She was willing to return to the fold this past spring, under several unusual (and costly) conditions that Bobsleigh Canada rejected.
Meanwhile, national team members have said this past season, in which she did not compete, was one of unusual harmony. Again, it does not require a great deal of insight to understand the subtext.
And so, these become some of Canada’s Olympic stories, too. The figure skaters who achieve a certain level of autonomy, and use it to build an ideal finish to their competitive careers. The bobsled pilot who isn’t given the autonomy she demands, and who wants to abandon her team because of it.
When they are putting together the Team Canada highlight reels for the next Olympics, it’s not hard to guess which medal winners will be front and centre.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019