With more countries more serious about winning medals in Paralympic sport, Canada tumbled down the rankings in London.
The stated objective of a top-eight finish in gold medals won at the 2012 Paralympic Games proved too ambitious for Canada.
Seven gold medals was well below the 19 won four years ago in Beijing. Canada ranked 20th among 166 countries in London.
“While we’re extremely proud of our athletes, not reaching our target is something we take very seriously,” Canadian Paralympic Committee chief executive officer Henry Storgaard said Sunday at a closing news conference.
“It means a Paralympic medal is more valuable and harder to achieve. The world has changed for Paralympic sport over the last two weeks and Canada needs to change with it.”
The wheelchair rugby team won Canada’s 31st medal Sunday, falling 66-51 to Australia in the final for silver. Canadian athletes also earned 15 silver and nine bronze.
Canada was third in the gold-medal count in 2000 and 2004 before dropping to seventh in Beijing.
The Paralympics are gaining respect and profile in the media, both mainstream and social. Athletes such as South Africa’s Oscar (Blade Runner) Pistorius are celebrities. Other countries now see the value of investment in athletes with a disability.
Countries such as Russia, Iran, Poland, Spain, France and Ireland moved passed Canada at these Games.
“Frankly, the surprise we encountered at these Games was the gold-medal count,” said CPC executive director of sport Rob Needham. “Even from world championship results last year moving forward to this year, the bar was raised significantly.”
Canada’s silver-medal count rose by five from Beijing “and that’s really the key difference,” Needham said. “If those were gold we’d be right there in the top 10 in the gold-medal count.”
Montreal swimmer Benoit Huot was chosen Canada’s flag bearer for the closing ceremonies. The 28-year-old won a complete set of gold, silver and bronze in London and set a world record in the 200 individual medley relay.
The four-time Paralympian is an example of how Canada was once a Paralympic powerhouse and now must scramble for the top of the podium.
After winning five gold in 2004, he went home with four bronze from Beijing. Of Huot’s four swims in London, three were the fastest of his life, but just one produced gold.
The swim team was a highlight of Canada’s overall performance with 16 medals, including a pair of gold from Hamilton’s Summer Mortimer and another gold from Valerie Grand’Maison of Fleurimont, Que.
The men’s wheelchair basketball team, wheelchair sprinter Michelle Stilwell and road cyclist Robbi Weldon of Thunder Bay, Ont., were also gold medallists.
What Canada lacked in London was an athlete like wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc, who won five gold in Beijing and significantly boosted the total.
Canada won 50 medals overall in Beijing. Chef de mission Gaeten Tardif hoped for between 40 and 50 when the Games began.
“We’d always like to have more medals, but over 30 medals is a fabulous record and (I’m) more than happy to hold that record against the Games that took place a few weeks ago,” Tardif said, referring to Canada’s Olympic team that won a single gold medal among its 18.
The Olympic team’s target was in overall medals, not gold, and finished 13th. Based their performance at previous Games, Canada’s Paralympic team was held to a gold standard.
Needham said there were signs a top-eight finish was going to be difficult, but the CPC chose not to back off the original target prior to its arrival in London.
Setting medal targets is meant to show Canadian taxpayers that sport is accountable for the way their money is spent, he said.
Own The Podium, which oversees the competitive aspects of athletes’ lives between Games, invested $21 million in Paralympic summer sport in the four years since Beijing. That almost tripled what was spent the previous quadrennial.
“The top-eight goal we knew coming in was going to be very difficult,” OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said. “The level of performance has significantly increased. Lots of work to be done. We know what we have to do.
“Tomorrow is the first day of the next quadrennial and we’ll be doing everything possible to improve Canada’s performance going forward.”
Storgaard says just four per cent of Canadians with a disability play a sport, compared to about 33 per cent of able-bodied Canadians.
To build the depth required to compete with the world, the CPC has launched an aggressive recruitment and development campaign to widen the pool of athletes.
“Other countries have tens of million of people with disabilities and can afford to throw numbers at the challenge,” Needham said.
“If we’re going to be competitive and get back to where we want to be in the podium standings, we need to be reaching a vastly higher percentage of our people with disabilities and really looking to remove the barriers to participation.”
Paralympic athletes are classified according to their disability, with gold, silver and bronze awarded in each classifications. The more classifications a country can enter, the better the chance at a medal.
“There’s 500 medal events and the Canadians didn’t have athletes in every single possible medal event,” assistant chef de mission Elizabeth Walker-Young said. “Those are medals that we can grab for that we didn’t have athletes contending for.”
Both Needham and Merklinger say the gold-medal versus the overall-medal target for the Paralympic team will be reviewed after London.
“If the level of competitiveness within the Paralympic movement was staying static, then one might look at it at say ‘yeah, you are lowering your standards if you change your gold-medal performance target to an overall-medal performance target,“’ Merklinger said. “But it’s not staying static. It’s increasing significantly.
“That said, I’m not suggesting we abandon the gold-medal target. I think it needs to be both. We need a gold-medal target to continue to set the bar. We want Paralympic champions for Canada. Just as we said in the Olympic environment, every medal matters.”