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Canada's Brent Hayden kisses his starting block following his third place finish in the men's 100-meter freestyle swimming final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Canada's Brent Hayden kisses his starting block following his third place finish in the men's 100-meter freestyle swimming final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. (Matt Slocum/AP)

London 2012

Encouraging signs for Canada’s Olympic future Add to ...

Like most things made in Switzerland they’re expensive, but these are the Olympics so wallets were opened, orders were placed and two were installed at the University of British Columbia pool.

The objects in question were $10,000 worth of Omega ‘swimming show’ starting blocks, bought with money from Own The Podium and B2Ten, and without them, Brent Hayden could well be flying home from England a disappointed man. Instead, he provided one of the more gripping Canadian moments of the London Games, winning a bronze in a marquee event at the pool, the 100-metre freestyle.

There will be those who see Canada’s showing at these Games as a letdown, and while it’s true the 2012 Games have been cast largely in bronze for Canadian athletes, Hayden’s story illustrates that context is as meaningful as standings – sometimes a bronze means more than third place.

The 28-year-old Hayden was never going to win gold against fearsome sprint stars James (The Missile) Magnussen of Australia and U.S. swimmer Nathan Adrian; his fight for bronze against French double gold medalist Yannick Agnel was a glorious achievement.

It was the same story for the women’s soccer team, whose bronze effort was a testimony to how well the players shrugged off their heart-crushing loss in the semi-finals. The soccer medal shone brightly, as did the team’s character – both stand as Canada’s signature on these Games.

It’s to wonder whether the British Museum’s archaeologists will eventually declare 2012 as the beginning of a New Bronze Age in the northernmost country of North America.

With a few surprises thrown into the mix, this country did more or less what outsiders said it would do in London: win somewhere between 17 and 19 medals, a middling count in keeping with a nation that cares more about winter sports. It’s a fact others see and understand.

“You’re always at the same level in the Summer Games, which is not bad,” said former Italian IOC member Luciano Barra, who projected Canada would win two gold and 17 medals overall. “Canada has no great tradition in summer sports and it’s not easy to win medals at the Summer Games. OTP is one of the great programs in the world but you’re a winter sport nation. The question now is to keep the level you achieved at the Winter Games.”

Canadian Olympic Committee head Marcel Aubut, who is seldom short of enthusiasm, takes a sunnier position on Canada’s showing at the Games.

The key for Aubut, who was elected president in 2009, is that the various elements and factions of the country’s amateur sporting establishment have managed to work in concert rather than at cross-purposes, as has occasionally happened in the past.

“The government, OTP, Sport Canada, the (training) centres, and the coaches’ association … and I saw it being part of only one team,” Aubut said. “Often, those guys are thought of as being in their own worlds… not at this Games. The whole sport system acted as one, and that may be the biggest achievement. That was new.”

Another novelty: some encouraging performances from Canada’s track and field team, which has been a medal wasteland since Atlanta in 1996.

Several Olympic track rookies posted personal or season’s bests in London: 200-metre sprinter Aaron Brown; five-kilometre and 10-kilometre specialist Cam Levins; 100-metre sprinter Justyn Warner; decathlete Damian Warner; steeplechaser Alex Genest; and high jumpers Derek Drouin and Mike Mason.

The whole lot could be medal contenders in three years at the Toronto-based Pan American Games and in four years in Rio de Janeiro, and that’s just the men.

On the women’s side, heptathlete Brianne Theisen finished 11th at her first Olympics, javelin thrower Elizabeth Gleadle made her first Olympic final and hurdler Phylicia George posted a personal best en route to the final.

Overall, London saw a cresting wave of young athletes, from diver Jennifer Abel, who won her first Olympic bronze medal in synchro, to swimmers Brittany MacLean, Martha McCabe and Sinead Russell.

Silver-medal rowers Conlin McCabe of the men’s eights and Lauren Wilkinson of the women’s eights should be stars of the program in 2016; paddler Jason McCoombs, 19, raced in the B final in the C1 200 metre sprint.

“I have big plans and dreams,” said rowing’s McCabe. “The ball has just started rolling on my rowing career ... I’ve already trained with a few great guys that will start to make a push for Rio.”

Together, they’re poised to take over for the retiring likes of Hayden, divers Alexandre Despatie and Émilie Heymans, heptathlete Jessica Zelinka, triathlete Simon Whitfield and the country’s greatest woman Olympian, cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes.

If the new faces end up adorned in bronze that may be as good as it gets.

In the Games of the Summer Olympiad you can always do worse.

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