Ascending to the stature of Olympic champion means to become an enduring character in a chapter of the national story. Medals and victories will never completely define a person, but they can certainly create a legacy when it comes to sporting achievement.
Beginning with Albertville and Barcelona in 1992, followed shortly thereafter by the Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games and then Atlanta and Nagano, Canadian athletes achieved unprecedented success at the Games.
The boycotted Olympics of the 1980s were in the rearview mirror and the failed attempts to win a gold medal at home in both Montreal and Calgary seemed to spark a renewed urgency for the Canadian Olympic team to perform.
WATCH | Canadian Olympians leave mark on 1990s:
Episode No. 10 of Olympic Games Replay reflects on the most memorable Canadian Olympic moments from the 1990s.
The decade saw Canadian podium finishes rise dramatically. In each edition of the Games in the ’90s, there were multiple gold medal strikes that have resonated with Canadians in succeeding years.
Swimmer Mark Tewksbury’s dramatic gold medal in the 100-metre backstroke at Barcelona in 1992 put him on the cover of TIME magazine and helped rocket him to prominence in his post-athletic career. He has since become an advocate for athletes’ rights, a visionary and a delegation leader at both the Olympics and Special Olympics.
“For me it was a joy followed by instant shock,” Tewksbury said via Zoom. “There was a lot of emotion in that moment. Joy, for sure, and the realization that, ‘Oh, my God…I won!’ This is the dream.”
Similarly, Donovan Bailey’s victory in track and field’s 100 metres at the Atlanta Games in 1996, in a then-world record time of 9.84 seconds, has become part of Olympic folklore. More than one generation of sports enthusiasts understands the place he roared to in our consciousness.
“It becomes very vivid,” Bailey reckoned the other day. “I’m reminded of it every time I’m out and I see people. They certainly can share with me what they were doing and how they celebrated and what the day meant to them. I am indeed happy that at that time, almost 25 years ago, I became the fastest human being in history.”
Canada’s most visible chronicler of the Olympics during the 1990s was the CBC Television host of the broadcast Brian Williams. Over the course of his career, he has travelled to 14 Olympics and been the main television voice at ten editions of the Games.
To him, the global view of the planet’s largest gathering was of paramount importance.
“As Canadians we, of course, embrace our history but we also tend to look beyond our borders,” Williams, who anchored in Albertville, Atlanta and Nagano during the 1990s, said.
“As a history major in university that has been important to me. At my first Olympics in Montreal, I fully realized the importance of a global perspective and extensive research. I love ‘LIVE’ television and there is no bigger ‘LIVE’ sports event than the Olympics.”
There were many Canadian achievements that stood out in the 1990s.
The rowers, led by Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle, came to dominate. Biathlete Myriam Bedard broke through to claim championships in a sport largely unfamiliar to Canadians.
Freestyle skiing joined the Olympic family and Canadian Jean-Luc Brassard became one of its first champions. In Atlanta, Clara Hughes captured the first cycling medals won by a Canadian woman. In Nagano, curling became a fixture at the Games with gold medal champion, the late Sandra Schmirler, achieving iconic status in this country.
WATCH | Schmirler leads Canada to 1st Olympic curling gold:
Williams pointed to three other landmark happenings from a Canadian point of view.
Firstly, there was Kerrin Lee-Gartner’s victory in the downhill ski race at Albertville on a sinister course known as the “Roc de Fer” or “Iron Rock” at Meribel.
“For many years, I covered World Cup skiing and wherever we went in Europe our Canadian skiers [both men and women], were known for their success in the dangerous downhill events. So many victories in so many countries for a nation of downhillers, but prior to 1992 not a single gold medal in an Olympic downhill,” Williams recounted.
“For me that’s what made Kerrin Lee-Gartner’s gold medal so special. Not only did she win on what was universally acknowledged to be the most difficult women’s course ever, but it turned out to be a perfect course for a Canadian.”
WATCH | Lee-Gartner claims gold at Meribel’s ‘Roc de Fer’:
Then in Atlanta at the Centennial Games, Williams not only witnessed Donovan Bailey become the first Canadian to win the men’s 100 metre since Vancouver’s Percy Williams had won both the 100 metre and 200 metre at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, he also pointed to the historic Canadian win in the 4×100 metre relay.
“Over the years the event had belonged to the United States. The U.S. had won the event 14 of 19 times since it first appeared in Stockholm in 1912 and their only losses had been the result of disqualifications,” he cited.
“The Canadian team of Robert Esmie, Glenroy Gilbert, Bruny Surin, Donovan Bailey and Carlton Chambers [who had run in the heats], became the first in Olympic history to beat the U.S. to the finish line and they did it in the U.S. I will always remember the late, great, Don Wittman saying as the team’s anchor Donovan Bailey crossed the finish line… ‘If you’re Canadian, you’ve got to love Saturday nights in Georgia!'”
Finally, Williams zeroed in on the hockey story in 1998 at Nagano, where women played for the first time in Olympic history and the NHL professionals got their initial taste of competition at the Games.
The Canadian women’s team won a silver medal and the men, led by Wayne Gretzky, arguably the world’s most accomplished player, failed to claim a medal after losing in a semi-final shootout to the Czech Republic. A despondent Gretzky had, astonishingly, been left on the bench for the final showdown and a dispirited Canadian team went on to lose the bronze medal match to Finland.
“In spite of being eliminated, Wayne Gretzky stayed for the closing ceremony,” Williams recalled.
There can be no doubt that the Canadian Olympic story reached a major plot point during this decade. The country came of age in the 1990s, and at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 23, the 21 gold medals that Canadian athletes won at five editions of the Games will be revisited. The program will be streamed live at CBCSports.ca and aired across the CBC television network. Check local listings for the time in your area.
Looking ahead to Saturday, May 30, Olympic Games Replay episode No. 11 will showcase the Olympics belonging to the first decade of a new millennium. The 2000s saw Canadians establish themselves in the extreme sports, as well as the arrival of bona fide legends and superstars like American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
Do you remember the 90s sports scene like it was yesterday? If you lived it and think you’re an expert, join our 90s trivia party Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET with Andi Petrillo and Scott Russell on our CBC Olympics Instagram channel (@cbcolympics).