7 February 2014

Let the games begin

The 2014 winter games may be thousands of miles away in Sochi, but Queen’s is closer to the Olympics than you may think

Original source: The Queen's Journal


Queen's Sailing has many Olympians amongst its Alumni.
Queen's Sailing has many Olympians amongst its Alumni.

You’re not the only one wondering what time to watch the Olympic opening ceremonies.

Olympic marathon runner and Queen’s alumnus Dylan Wykes will be watching from his current home in British Columbia — 12 time zones behind Sochi, Russia.

“We were just trying to figure out when things would be on,” Wykes said, laughing. “It should be fun to watch. Canada has so many great athletes in so many different sports.”

Currently the second-fastest Canadian marathon runner of all time, Wykes himself falls into this category. After qualifying for the Olympics at the Rotterdam Marathon in April 2012, Wykes finished in 20th place in the men’s marathon at the London 2012 games — his very first Olympic competition.

Wykes said the loop course in downtown London allowed for a concentrated fan base, whose cheering was practically inaudible.

“I was pretty happy with how I did,” Wykes said. “By the end of it, I just felt relieved after running 42 kilometres.”

He’s yet to run another marathon following his Olympic debut, as he’s currently recovering from a series of injuries, but hopes to compete in Rio de Janerio in 2016.

Born and raised in Kingston, Wykes has crossed finish lines at Queen’s as well, graduating with his Masters of Epidemiology in 2011.

“The department of epidemiology was really supportive, and very understanding when I needed to leave for a meet,” Wykes said. “I actually won the World Championships in Berlin while I was studying at Queen’s.”

Wykes is just one of several Queen’s alumni who have represented Canada at the Olympics.

John Curtis, ArtSci ’90 and Law ’95, sailed in the 2004 Athens games and is now a lawyer in Kingston.

Curtis said he tried his best to treat the games the same as any other competition.

Dylan Wykes, MSc ’11, placed 20th in the men’s marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Dylan Wykes, MSc ’11, placed 20th in the men’s marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (Supplied) “There’s all sorts of pomp and circumstance … it’s a big distraction, so we were told the best thing to do is think about it like just another event. I think actually, we were able to do that,” he said.

Normally protected from viciously high or painfully low winds by class rules, Curtis and his teammate, fellow Queen’s alumnus Oskar Johansson, were unprepared for the “games must go on” doctrine of the Olympics.

They had to sail through low winds to avoid having to postpone the event, which would interfere with its televised broadcast.

“The results were a little disappointing. We had very light wind and we did not have the speed from the light air,” Curtis said. “Other than that, it was absolutely fantastic.”

Curtis and Johansson placed 15th overall in the games’ Tornado class.

Originally from Barrie, ON., Curtis studied philosophy at Queen’s before starting his law degree and launching the Queen’s sailing team in 1992.

While he mentioned the resistance he received from administration at the time, he noted how alumni donations put wind in the team’s sails.

After fundraising to finance his position as sailing team coach in the late 1990s, Curtis had his contract wrongfully terminated.

“I was able to raise money from fairly high-profile alumni and the University didn’t like that,” Curtis said. “Some donors came forth with money for the Queen’s sailing team and I think they had bigger plans for them.”

Nevertheless, Curtis said his contract was reconciled and the University has now fully embraced its sailing athletes.

“The Queen’s sailing team has been an unmitigated success,” Curtis said. “It has produced nine Olympic athletes from Queen’s.”

Kingston is considered an epicentre for sailing in Canada. Portsmouth Harbour, near West Campus, hosted the sailing events for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. According to Curtis, Kingston’s status as a sailing hub was a major reason he chose to study at Queen’s.

Queen’s is an ideal location for all types of athleticism, according to Leslie Dal Cin, director of Athletics and Recreation. She said athleticism at Queen’s complements the academic excellence the University is known for.

“Leadership, pursuit of excellence and pursuit of goals, working with other people to achieve collective targets — I think all those are the hallmark of athletics,” she said.

While eight Queen’s alumni participated in the 2012 London games, the biannual international competition has, over the years, hosted several more alumni athletes.

According to Geoffrey Smith, professor emeritus in the department of history and School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen’s athletic enthusiasm isn’t a recent development.

Queen’s residences were the Olympic Village for sailors in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Smith was appointed as a protocol officer in charge of the Soviet Union delegation.

“I had a marvelous time, briefing and debriefing the Soviet delegation for two and a half weeks,” Smith said.

Smith also coached the men’s basketball team at Queen’s throughout the 1970s. While the University supports athletes balancing their athletic and academic pursuits, Smith said Canadian universities fail to offer them the same financial support that American schools do.

According to Smith, this has led to an exodus of talented Canadian athletes to professional US rosters.

“Achievement and competing at the Olympic games is important and you cannot do that on shoestrings,” he said. “You have to have some support. Then of course, when the support gets too great, it takes over — then you have people cheating.”

Smith said corruption has long been an element in the Olympics, escalating in the 1920s when corporate culture began saturating the games.

“The games are terrific; the competition is wonderful,” he said. “The corruption is endemic.”

“Ironically during the depression, corporate sponsors made huge inroads in the games, especially at Los Angeles in 1932,” he said. “That has never looked back.”

Corporate culture at the Olympics shifted the games’ emphasis from a celebration of sport to a celebration of profit. With gold to be earned beyond the medals, winning became the focal point, inducing crooked means of competition.

Smith said the 1936 games in Berlin — when Germany was under Hitler’s rule — was the beginning of the Olympics acting as a reflection of world politics.

“That was a politicized Olympics. It was at that Olympics that the nation-state and the games were inextricably intertwined.”

Smith said he isn’t convinced Olympic nationalism is a good thing.

“Countries, for better or for worse — and I think it’s for worse — identify Olympic victory with a superior, national culture,” he said. “There’s too much nationalism, not enough recognition of Olympic good.”

Smith referenced the common sociological argument that the Olympics is war by other means. Rob Beamish, head of the sociology department at Queen’s, said this is exactly the mentality that leads to the use of performance-enhancing substances.

“The margin between finishing on the podium and being in the top eight is so slim that athletes will use every means possible to try to make sure they make the podium,”

While the sophistication of today’s steroids enable many athletes to use them undetected, some strategic tactics fall within the rules of the game.

According to Beamish, Canada hosted secret testing facilities that developed state-of-the-art sporting equipment for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

“The suits that the Canadian speed skaters wore were tested in air tunnels and were slightly better than the suits that other athletes had,” Beamish said.

No Olympics comes without extensive training, however — something numerous states continue to fund.

“Canada has now done that since the success of 2010,” Beamish said. “The federal government recognized the payoff that that created — that sense of national pride.”

State funding became paramount during the Cold War era, when Soviet and American superpowers used the Olympic games to showcase their national strength.

In 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics as it disapproved of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, encouraging other nations to follow suit. After hosting a boycotted Olympics, the Soviet Union withheld its participation from the 1984 games in L.A. “The Sochi games are the first time the games have come back to Russia,” Beamish said. “I think Putin had the idea that he could once again use the games to showcase his Russia, and that his Russia is all of the positive elements that he wants to emphasize.”

The political contention associated with the Sochi games has furthered media coverage via both traditional and social media, the latter of which has intensified spectator engagement, according to Vincent Mosco, professor emeritus of sociology.

“The last winter Olympics was probably the first major burst of social media activity,” he said.

According to Mosco, this has a downside.

“If an athlete who is favoured to win gold happens to fail, it’s likely that will lead to more negative comments than were possible in the past,” he said.

Mosco said the presence of social media only adds to the pressure felt by Olympic athletes.

“In the past, you could be an Olympic athlete and essentially you would hear from your coach, your team, the people in the stands; you might read a newspaper that had stories about the competition,” he said.

“Now, instantly you can get comments from literally millions of people who might be following you on Twitter.”

— With files from Rachel Herscovici