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#Rio2016: U of T cheers for its Olympic athletes

Christine Sinclair #12 of Canada scores their second goal during the match between Canada and Australia womens football for the summer olympics at Arena Corinthians on August 3, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil (photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

The excitement started even before the opening ceremonies – with a 2-0 victory by the Canadian women’s soccer team over Australia on the first day of competition.

But which athletes and teams will University of Toronto students and faculty be cheering for at the 2016 Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro?

“Team Canada, of course,” said Ayesha Ali. A third-year student from University College at the Faculty of Arts & Science, Ali works the welcome desk at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. She likes swimming – where Canadians appear to have good chances – and track and field events of all types.

As a global health major, Ali is less impressed with the measures undertaken by the authorities. The Zika virus threat needs to be taken more seriously, she says.

“They’re telling people to come at their own discretion,” Ali said. “I wouldn’t feel safe going there.

‘The [Brazilian] government could definitely do more to make sure its citizens as well as tourists are protected. And the Olympic organization could have been better prepared.”

Melanie Yu, a Rotman Commerce student who is president of the student-run University of Toronto Sports and Business Association (UTSB), counts herself among the thousands of U of T people (and perhaps millions of Canadians) with a special affection for 2012 gold medalist Rosie MacLennan – the Kinesiology & Physical Education grad student and two-time trampoline Olympian who was named flag bearer for Canada.

“I can't wait to watch her bring home gold,” Yu said. “Her story is so inspiring and I think she is such a great role model.”

Yu’s favourite sport, however, is basketball. “It's exciting to see the Canadian team back in action again,” she said of the women’s squad from which so much is expected.

“And Canadian pride aside, I'm also looking forward to watching the U.S. basketball teams – both men and women – as they have many superstars on both teams.”

To say Dr. Doug Richards, medical director of David L. MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic, is a supporter of the Canadian women’s basketball team is putting it mildly. This associate professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) was the team physician from 1987 until after the London Olympics of 2012.

Richards has treated the five newcomers to the basketball team as well as the seven veterans of 2012. “They are legitimate medal contenders,” he says.

Richards also likes the chances of the Canadian Beach Volleyball teams. Again, his opinion has some authority, Richards having served as team physician from 1997 to 2014 and knowing well the three U of T alumni on the teams (Heather Bansley, Josh Binstock and Kristina Valjas) who played indoor volleyball for the Varsity Blues.

Richards’s wife, Blues volleyball coach Kristine Drakich, has coached both Bansley and Valjas. His brother-in-law Ed Drakich, a former Blues coach, is the technical director of the Olympic Beach Volleyball event, a role Drakich played also in Beijing, London and in the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.

 And as chief medical officer of the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, situated on the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, he has frequent interaction with swimmers and wheelchair basketball athletes. Both the Canadian men and women wheelchair teams have qualified for Rio Paralympics.

“Of course I will be interested in many of the U of T and KPE alums in other sports,” Richards adds. “Rosie MacLennan, Michelle Li (badminton) and Kylie Masse (swimming) have all been among my students in two undergrad KPE courses. The first two on that list have been my patients. I will be rooting them all along.”

Not all the enthusiasm is confined to Canada. Yu reports that she and many of her UTSB colleagues are fans of the British track and field star Jessica Ennis-Hill, who will be competing in the heptathlon. “She’s overcome various injuries throughout the years and also gave birth in 2014 but is looking to retain the Olympic title,” Yu observes.

Vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian, says he will be following the fortunes of Dutee Chand (India, 100 metres) and Caster Semanya (South Africa, 800 metres) with special interest. These runners have been the subject of controversy owing to their failure to meet the International Olympic Committee’s former hyperandrogenism regulations – which Chand overturned through an appeal to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“Both women have been vilified in the media and ostracized by some members of the sports community,” says Kidd, a leading figure in the campaign to abolish the Olympic sex test. “They will no doubt face extra pressure in Rio.

“Yet they have persisted, kept their heads high and made the Olympic standard to qualify for Rio. They are such remarkable and courageous women, I will be cheering loudly for them.”

Kidd will also be solidly behind the U of T students and alumni competing in Rio, many of whom he knows personally and has taught. “Such a thoughtful, determined and unassuming champion,” he says of modern pentathlete Donna Vakalis.

As well as Binstock, Li and MacLennan, Kidd mentions Crispin Duenas (archery) and four women from the U of T Track Club: Alicia Brown, Micha Powell, Andrea Seccafien and Gabriela Stafford.  “I admire these athletes so much.”

Water quality in Rio has generated some headlines but the more enduring Olympic problem is doping. Richards, who has lectured on the subject in various courses, feels that progress is being made.

“While the recent spat of positive re-tests and scandals emerging from Russia, Kenya, Jamaica and elsewhere could add fuel to a cynic's fire, I am more of a glass-half-full optimistic kind of guy,” he said. “I think the IOC faced a very difficult decision, both legally and ethically, as do the various international sport federations that are now dealing with each sport and its Russian athletes on a case-by-case basis.”

Canadian athletes, he adds, are consistently among the cleanest in the world.

For Professor Ira Jacobs, dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, part of the thrill of Rio is waiting to see if – or more likely when – the next plateau in human performance is reached.

“I invariably get quite excited just before and during each and every Olympic and Paralympic Games,” he said. “On one level that excitement is because of the emotional high of seeing true excellence in a human endeavour personified in the remarkable athletes regardless of their nationality. 

“On a professional level, my exercise physiology research has involved the study of physiological capacities and limitations. As dean, I also closely follow the sports-focused research of my colleagues in the social sciences and humanities. So I think I have a good grasp of the magnitude of both physical and cognitive training that goes into the preparation of a high-performance athlete.

“Yet in every Games there is at least one remarkable performance that has me questioning my knowledge and leading me to ask: ‘How is that performance possible?’

“I’m quite excited to see when the question first materializes during the Rio Games. And hoping it will be associated with a Canadian athlete’s performance!”