NEWS

Quebec Athletes Leading The Way For Canada At London Olympics

08/01/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT
AP
Meaghan Benfeito, left, and Roseline Filion of Canada pose with their bronze medals after competing in the women's synchronized 10-meter platform diving final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
LONDON - Quebec athletes make up just under a quarter of Canada's Olympic team, yet they won all of the country's first four medals in London.

A pair of bronze in synchronized diving, another bronze in judo and yet another bronze in women's weightlifting came from Quebec athletes in the first four days of competition.

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois was quick to make political hay out of the development in Quebec City, citing it as another reason the province should be independent.

"We could continue to win our medals," she said. "I'm sure of that."

Politics aside, Quebec can toot its own horn when it comes to Olympic sports. The province financially supports its athletes more than any other province.

Montreal's sports facilities are approaching world class, thanks to a multimillion-dollar renovation already underway to create a sport institute with the 1976 Olympic Games venues.

The only other two Canadian centres with sport infrastructure of similar quality are Calgary and Vancouver/Whistler, B.C.

What's on offer in those places is geared towards winter sport because of the 1988 and 2010 Winter Games. Toronto will be able to cater more to elite athletes once the 2015 Pan American Games are held there.

Quebec athletes stepping up for Canada in the opening days of the Games was also related to scheduling. Diving and judo competition fell on the opening days.

The national diving and judo centres are based in Montreal, drawing athletes from the local population. Canada's geographic imbalance of medals will likely even out over the next couple of days as rowers and trampoline gymnasts from outside Quebec are expected to produce medals.

Canada's men's eight rowing crew, which doesn't include any Quebec athletes, won silver on Wednesday while Mission, B.C., swimmer Brent Hayden raced to bronze in the 100-metre freestyle.

But give Quebec credit as a sport powerhouse when it comes to producing both summer and winter Olympians. Under the Team Quebec program, the government will spend $65 million in 2011-2012 on its athletes and the construction of the sport institute.

"The culture in terms of the passion and commitment to high-performance sport in Quebec is quite profound," says Own The Podium head Anne Merklinger.

"Quebec, to this point in time, they are a leading province in terms of investing in high-performance sport. They provide direct financial support to coaches and athletes on the national team and no other province does that."

Weightlifter Christine Girard, one of Canada's three bronze medallists Tuesday, can vouch for Quebec's superior sport support. She grew up in Rouyn-Noranda, but now lives and trains in White Rock, B.C.

"I know what I'm talking about because I have lived in both systems and I can definitely say athletes are better supported and better served in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada," she said.

"Personally, my funding was $15,000 less when I decided to move out west with my husband a couple of years ago. The support we're getting in Quebec is better, not only financially, but the services we get from professionals are free. We have to pay for all of that in B.C."

An aquatics centre of excellence was established at Montreal Olympic Park in 2007, but Quebec was a diving hotbed long before that. As often happens, when an athlete rises to the top of the world, those who train with them often follow.

Current Canadian team assistant chef de mission Sylvie Bernier won springboard bronze in 1984, serving as a role model for Annie Pelletier (bronze, 1996) and Anne Montminy (silver, bronze, 2000).

They were followed by Emilie Heymans, a St-Lambert diver who earned a medal at each of the last four Olympics. Her first was a synchronized silver with Montminy. Now, it's Jennifer Abel picking up the torch.

The Laval native won synchro springboard bronze with Heymans on Day 2 and is a contender in the individual springboard later this week. Roseline Filion, who won synchro tower bronze with Meaghan Benfeito on Tuesday, says it was Pelletier who inspired her at age nine to start diving.

Alex Despatie of Laval, Que., has two Olympic silver medals in men's diving on his resume and looks to add a third here in springboard.

When the Institute du Sport is complete at Olympic Park, it will have synchronized swimming, diving, swimming, water polo, judo, gymnastics, fencing and short-track speedskating among its resident sports.

With former Olympic medallist Nicholas Gill coaching Antoine Valois-Fortier to judo bronze in London, a similar cycle could start in that sport.

Filion dives in an environment where all her competitive needs are met. She looks forward to sharing that environment with other athletes from her province.

"From the weight room, to the dryland (training) area, we have psychiatrists, nutritionists, fitness coach, massage, physio, we absolutely have everything we need," she said. "They're just going to build it more and more to get everybody at Olympic Stadium, so we get to see the short-track speedskating training at the same time as us in the weight room. We're really grateful because we have that much support in Quebec."

— With files from Canadian Press reporter Robert Laflamme

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