The Globe and Mail
Continuing a remarkable Canadian run at the IAAF track and field championships in Beijing, 21-year-old pole-vaulter Shawn Barber won the world title on Monday. It’s this country’s first gold at the biannual athletics event since hurdler Perdita Felicien mounted the top step in 2003.
Mr. Barber, whose given name is Shawnacy, was born in New Mexico. His father, George, from Kincardine, Ont., competed in the pole vault for Canada in the 1980s. His son began his amateur career as a kindergartner, jumping ditches at the family farm with homemade equipment. Manufacturers don’t make poles sized for five-year-olds.
Working under his father’s guidance, Mr. Barber has been a collegiate standout at the University of Akron in Ohio. He’s repeatedly broken the Canadian record, but there was little sense he had this sort of performance in him.
His jump of 5.90 metres topped a series of experienced competitors who have rather more impressive credentials than a bronze at the Commonwealth Games, where he finished last year.
How unexpected was it? The postcompetition report on the IAAF’s website referenced world-record holder and fourth-place finisher Renaud Lavillenie 11 times before Mr. Barber’s name appeared.
In some cases, you bury the lede. In this one, they beat it to death with a shovel.
No exercise in track snobbery can rob Mr. Barber of his superlative. He’s now the best on the planet – both in pole-vaulting and quite possibly ginger-athlete terms.
His accomplishment is more than a wonderful one-off. It’s part of a sea change in expectations for next summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Canada won one gold medal at London 2012. It arrived via trampolinist Rosie MacLennan on Day 8.
By that point, the country was tied up in competitive knots. We participate with the very best of them and quite rightly take pride in it, but it’s natural to want to be the best at something. Anything. There are only so many battling third-places one country can embrace with a sense of patriotic proportion.
We took a lot of fun memories out of London, but if Ms. MacLennan hadn’t pulled her surprise, the post-Games pullquote would’ve been “Canada pooches it again.”
Going back more than 20 years, this country hasn’t won more than three golds at any Summer Games. You’d have trouble recalling many of those winners, but you should try – they’re keeping our international athletic reputation over the Mendoza Line. Just barely.
A few weeks ago, before the Pan Am Games introduced us to the players, we anticipated more of the same in Rio. A lot of great stories and great moments, and very few great wins. That feeling is starting to roll onto its head. Driven by Mr. Barber and his colleagues, Canada suddenly looks like a warm-weather factor.
This means the rest of us are going to have do some (sigh) homework.
Have you ever watched pole vault before? (It’s the one with the bendy stick.) I’m guessing probably not. I’m guessing that most of your pole-vaulting viewing experiences are limited to YouTube clips titled “Exploding pole fail.”
Well, we’re a full-on pole-vaulting nation now. Canada is all pole vaulting all the time. Google Sergey Bubka and get ready to have long, angry bar conversations about optimal striking angles and the proper axis of rotation. Snapchat your sister to tell her you’re going to have to skip her wedding next August because, you know, pole vaulting.
This is the power of being really good at something. Every Olympic event is worth watching, whether your rooting interest is going to finish third or 30th. But if you think you have a decent shot at the top, it becomes an event.
Canada in Rio is now polka-dotted with those occasions, as well as with a host of fresh faces who may soon be household names.
Mr. Barber’s gets added to 20-year-old sprinter Andre De Grasse (100-metre bronze in Beijing), 26-year-old heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton (silver) and 22-year-old race walker Ben Thorne (bronze).
Twenty-five-year old decathlete Damian Warner (bronze at the last world championships), 24-year-old long-jumper Christabel Nettey (world No. 2) and 25-year-old high-jumper Derek Drouin (2012 Olympic bronze medalist) will compete in Beijing in the coming days.
These sorts of breakthroughs tend to happen in bunches. Maybe this is the week Canada discovers a new (first?) golden generation of multidisciplinary track stars.
A month ago, the only Olympian in Rio you would’ve felt sure of picking out of a crowd was basketballer Andrew Wiggins. That’s how Rio was shaping up – Canada’s basketball Games.
Assuming that team qualifies, you may still be feeling that way. If so, you know they have zero chance of winning, right? Because that’ll make things easier for you. Emotionally.
At best, Canada’s men’s basketball team is looking to make a minor-chord statement, ahead of a real run four years later in Tokyo. If you want winners, look elsewhere. You’re being spoiled for choice.
What the Barbers, Theisen-Eatons and De Grasses have in common is they’re young and still improving, rather than just arriving. They don’t know enough to be scared, or maybe they don’t know how to be. Most give the sense of competitors who are finding their form at just the right time. Even if they don’t peak in Rio, many have a decade or more to reach the top. This story will stretch out.
Beyond the track, there are other hopeful signs of something beyond competence in the pool, and on the field and the water. If you were to start ticking them all off here, this column turns into a numbing sports listicle. And athletes aren’t the only professionals who have their pride to think of.
Canada has had niche dominance in non-winter sports before – swimmers in the 1980s; runners in the 1980s and 90s; rowers in the 1990s. Sporadically, someone will pop into the cultural conversation for a few days, or a team such as the women’s soccer team and their glorious week in 2012.
But we’ve never been able to tick off the daily events at a Summer Games and say to ourselves, “We could do some real damage here.”
Think of how much you’ve enjoyed every previous Olympics, regardless of results, and then imagine how incredible it could be if we expected to win. A lot.
Seemingly out of nowhere, that’s happening now.