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U of T at the Olympics: a longstanding tradition

U of T's Michelle Li represented Canada in badminton. (Photo by Jason Ransom)

In 1900 a University of Toronto graduate named George Orton became the first Canadian to earn gold at the Olympic Games - in the 2500m steeplechase.

And U of T faculty, students, staff and alumni have contributed to every Olympic Games since that day - as athletes, medical staff, coaches and commentators – more than 460 men and women.

Over the years, more than 80 U of T athletes have won medals – including alumnus Norman Lane, who brought home a bronze in canoeing from the last London Games, in 1948.

“Going on the podium for the bronze medal at Wembley Stadium was the most emotional occasion,” says Lane, 92.

Ken Lane - Norman’s younger brother and fellow U of T alumnus - also excelled at canoeing, reaching the podium in 1952.

“He won the silver in Helsinki in canoeing pairs,” recalls Norman, who also competed at those Games. “It was a photo finish – they literally had to examine the photo to determine who won.”

Like the Lane brothers, Rosie MacLennan, Canada’s gold medallist at these Olympics, comes from an athletic family; she took up the trampoline after watching her older siblings train.

But the experience of MacLennan and her fellow U of T Olympians in 2012 is very different from that of the Lanes. Now, athletes promote themselves through online blogs and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook. And through that same social media, fans can follow their every step to share more closely in the Olympic experience.

“Heading to London today! Crazy! So hard to believe that its almost here!!” tweeted U of T’s Michelle Li, who represented Canada in badminton, placing fourth in women’s doubles.

“HUGE Thanks to everyone for supporting us!” posted U of T’s Josh Binstock and partner Martin Reader on their Facebook page, after their first round of men’s beach volleyball. “Such an amazing experience beating GBR at home for our first Olympic win! Next up is Norway on Monday morning at 11 London time. We will do our best to keep updated but our feeds are blowing up plus we must stay focused.”

All of the attention can be costly, says sports psychiatrist and U of T lecturer Dr. Saul Marks. The alumnus and former national university diving champion is in London as honorary secretary of the FINA sports medicine committee which oversees aquatic sports including swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, water polo and open water swimming.

“Our athletes have increasingly become our ‘heroes’ and ‘role models’,” Marks says. “They are under the 'microscope' with more pressure than ever as a hero is not allowed to be human or have weaknesses.”

But social media can help as well as hinder, says Marks.

“Used in the wrong way, it can be very damaging to athletes,” he says. “There have been a few negative examples I am sure you have read about in the papers in Canada, but far and away, there are more positives.

“The athletes can feel, and be, supported by people around the world for the first time.”

Before his Olympic victory, Lane prepared on his own near his cottage outside Kingston, often performing the 10,000m Olympic distance twice a day. No coaches, no training partners.

“[The Olympics] are much more professional now then they use to be,” Lane says. “Now they bring in professional players such as in basketball and hockey. That wouldn’t have been allowed in 1948.”

But no matter how much the Games change, certain challenges endure. Lane used his own money to purchase canoeing equipment and training in preparation for London.

“You weren’t allowed to have any extra money given to you, or else you would lose your amateur status and couldn’t go to the Olympics.”

On her website, alumna Donna Vakalis includes a countdown clock to the start of the modern pentathlon – and a PayPal button for donations.

The tally on her website shows Vakalis has received only $16,000 towards her goal of $36,000 – money needed to support costly training in fencing, shooting, horseback riding, swimming and running. 

“Debt is a big problem facing athletes as it dissuades young and talented individuals from participating. It’s definitely problematic for developing athletes for the future,” says Vakalis.

Her friend and fellow Varsity Blues athlete Sarah Wells agrees.

“Unless I’m Usain Bolt, I will not be making a living on track and field,” says Wells, who competed in the 400m hurdles. 

The athletes agree that nobody can put a price on the Olympic experience. But as they look to their futures, higher education remains a priority. Many Olympians are returning to U of T, including archer Crispin Duenas who is headed to OISE, undergraduate Wells, and Vakalis, who will be pursuing a PhD in civil engineering. 

“The faculty has been amazing with helping me balance school and training and letting me excel in both,” says MacLennan, who returns to U of T this fall to begin work on her masters in science in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education.