They were boycotted Games, but the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 hold a special place for many who follow Canadian sporting lore.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story.
While it’s true that the 44 medals, including 10 gold medals, won by Canadian athletes is double the number of podium finishes by athletes from this country at any summer Games since, it’s the symbolic nature of L.A. which continues to have a residual effect.
Kayaker Sue Holloway, who had been chosen as flag bearer for the Moscow Olympics, only to have her ambitions scuttled at the height of her career, remembers committing to the prospect of Los Angeles after some self-doubt.
“The pain and disappointment of Moscow remains to this day,” she said from her Ottawa home.
“I had a major conversation with myself and decided I was going to go to L.A., work my butt off and then it would be over. I knew for a fact that my energy level once I got there was higher than it had ever been before.”
Holloway, who had become the first woman and only Canadian to compete at winter and summer Olympics in the same year as a cross country skier in Innsbruck, Austria and kayaker in Montreal in 1976, fed off the early Canadian performances in Los Angeles.
“Right from the get-go people were exceeding expectations and performing so well. That feeling became contagious,” she recalled.
“I remember being there when the Canadian women’s rowing four won their medal. I remember feeling the buzz off them and decided that I too wanted to feel like that.”
Holloway translated that energy into a silver medal in the K-2 500m race and a bronze medal as a member of the K-4 500m crew. It was part of a Canadian success story in California which saw paddlers Larry Cain, Alwyn Morris, and Hugh Fisher win gold medals as well as the Canadian men’s rowing eight.
Bernier makes good on Olympic opportunity
Diver Sylvie Bernier remembers Los Angeles as being an opportunity she would not take for granted.
As a twenty-year-old, she won a gold medal in the women’s three-metre springboard event — the last non-Chinese diver to do so. She is also the only Canadian to win Olympic diving gold.
WATCH | Sylvie Bernier details journey to 1984 Olympics:
“I didn’t make the Olympic team for 1980 and then the boycott happened. Just looking at some of my teammates, I realized they never got the chance I did,” Bernier said from Rosemere, Que.
“In L.A. it was pure joy. We were all just so happy to be there.”
The head of the organizing committee, Peter Ueberroth, an airline executive who would go on to become the commissioner of Major League Baseball, executed Olympics which employed existing venues and delivered a spectacular showcase.
Composer John Williams of Star Wars fame wrote the theme music for LA ’84, the centrepiece of a space age Opening Ceremony while superstar Lionel Ritchie crooned a nine minute version of “All Night Long” at the closing.
WATCH | Opening Ceremony of 1984 Summer Olympics:
The athletic characters of L.A. became larger than life. Women ran the marathon for the first time and Joan Benoit of the United States won.
Carl Lewis emulated the great Jesse Owens and captured four gold medals in track and field competition, the 100m, 200m, Long Jump, and 4x100m relay. The People’s Republic of China returned to the summer Olympics for the first time since Helsinki in 1952 and male gymnast Li Ning won six medals which earned him the nickname, “The Prince of Gymnastics” back home.
Canadian swimmers strike gold
Canadian athletes basked in the California sunshine as well.
The swimmers led by Alex Baumann, the late Victor Davis, and Anne Ottenbrite broke through with ten medals, including four gold at the the University of Southern California’s open air pool.
“There was an overall feeling of impending success at the Games by the Canadian contingent,” said CBC Sports swimming commentator Byron MacDonald, who was working his first Olympics as a broadcaster in Los Angeles.
WATCH | How Alex Baumann faced pressure of being Canada’s best Olympic hope:
“The good feeling of the Games in L.A. was also because of the boycott. At the time everyone knew the Eastern Bloc and in particular the East Germans were doping to a huge degree. So with them out of the Games, it felt like it was back to the ‘good old days’ of a fair playing field. It was a relief to not have to feel athletes were being unfairly robbed of their chance to win medals.”
For five-time Olympian and track and field star Charmaine Crooks, who won a silver medal in the women’s 4x400m relay, the momentous nature of arriving at the magnificent L.A. Memorial Coliseum is forever etched in her memory.
“It was a magical time for our Canadian team to finally walk into the L.A. Olympic stadium with the lively crowd making us all feel like we were part of the home team,” Crooks said via email from Vancouver.
“It’s been 36 years and I’m still overcome with emotion from actually being able to compete for Canada in the Games after the 1980 boycott, and what we were able to accomplish with a silver medal finish while breaking the Canadian 4x400m relay record that still stands today.”
WATCH | Anne Ottenbrite on how she prepared for the biggest swim of her life:
The Los Angeles Olympics created many great Canadian sports moments and brought numerous characters to life.
Perhaps more importantly they revived the Olympic spirit for many Canadian athletes in light of what had not happened four years earlier in Moscow.
“That floored me and it took a long time to recover from that,” Holloway reflected.
“Los Angeles gave many of us another Olympic experience. It made me respectful of what I got and many of my teammates never had the chance to get. I have my medals and that’s made the world of difference in my life. I truly value that.”
For Holloway and some of her contemporaries, the 1984 Games in Los Angeles could not completely close every wound.
But by their glittering nature, they became, in more ways than one, healing Olympics for legions of Canadians.