As the world ushered in a new millennium, things changed rapidly for the planet’s largest recurring spectacle: the Olympic Games.
“The Baltimore Bullet,” American aquatic phenomenon Michael Phelps, soon followed and would cruise to 14 of his landmark 23 Olympic gold medals between Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.
The China edition also gave rise to the spectacular Usain Bolt of Jamaica.
The long, lanky sprinter and charismatic showman smashed world records and swept sprinting events in Beijing. Bolt would eventually earn living legend status by achieving an unprecedented, unblemished run of dominance on the track that extended through the Rio Olympics in 2016.
In the winter, Canadian athletes rounded into form — especially those who wore skates. There were hockey gold medals captured by the men and women for the first time in a long time and both the short-track and long-track speed skaters established themselves as frontrunners for the foreseeable future. On the ice, Canada was a force to be reckoned with in both Salt Lake in 2002 and Torino in 2006.
WATCH | Olympic moments from the 2000s you’ll never forget:
Beyond that, the world order of sport was turned on its head.
“The lines on the globe changed so much,” said Marnie McBean, the Canadian rower who won three gold medals in the 1990s but missed the chance to win a fourth in Sydney due to injury.
“The USSR had become 20-plus countries. Socialism, fascism and communism had all collapsed. Plus China had begun to care about participating in all sports, not just a few. In addition, science was beginning to replace the art of coaching and women were kicking ass everywhere.”
Laying the foundation
While it’s true that Canadian athletes struggled in the swimming pool with only two medals — by Curtis Myden, bronze in the 400-metre individual medley at Sydney, and Ryan Cochrane, bronze in the 1500m freestyle event in Beijing — the foundation was being laid.
“Australia was an amazing experience. Swimming being their top summer sport made the pool an amazing place to be at,” Myden, who is now an orthopaedic surgeon, said. “Watching Ian Thorpe racing was a special moment amongst many other great swims in 2000. I am very proud to be able to repeat as a medallist for Canada in the 400m IM.”
Tom Johnson, one of the national swim coaches of the era, says the approach has consistently been to come from a perspective of doing your best on the biggest stage.
“Belief and confidence in what we do without a lot of talk about medals has led to the development of momentum inside the team and inside the country’s centres and clubs,” Johnson said. “Being professional in our approach and focusing on ourselves has allowed us to manage any disappointments and to ride the highs.”
In Athens, Calgary’s Kyle Shewfelt captured Canada’s first artistic gymnastics medal by taking floor exercise gold. Lori-Ann Muenzer, a 38-year-old legal secretary from Edmonton, defeated much younger rivals to win Canada’s first cycling gold medal in the matched sprint on the track.
“You dream about it all your life and it’s not just one day, it’s multiple days. For me it was 4,998 days of training and racing to get there,” Muenzer reflected via email.
Four years later in Beijing, wrestler Carol Huynh of B.C., born to Vietnamese refugees, became the first Canadian woman to win wrestling gold. Show jumper Eric Lamaze, who was just inducted to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame along with his brilliant stallion “Hickstead,” became Canada’s first equestrian champion in an individual event.
At the Winter Games of Salt Lake in 2002, Beckie Scott of Vermilion, Alta., won North America’s first medal by a female cross-country skier. It was bronze on the day, but in the two subsequent years the medal became silver, then gold, when it was discovered the Russian women who finished ahead of her were doping.
In hockey, the Canadian women’s team avenged the debut loss they suffered at the hands of the Americans in Nagano in 1998 to prevail in Utah and claim gold. Laden with NHL talent, the Canadian men had failed to win a medal in Japan. They started slowly in Salt Lake but turned it around after general manager Wayne Gretzky fired up the team by railing against what he perceived as anti-Canadian sentiment in the Olympic city.
Led by Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla, Team Canada won its first men’s hockey gold medal in 50 years amid the electrically charged environment.
“There was a cold war mentality,” Canadian women’s star Hayley Wickenheiser said. “It was the most cohesive Team Canada men’s and women’s environment I’d ever been a part of.”
WATCH | Canada ends Olympic hockey gold-medal drought:
The sport that demonstrated the value of the legacy left by the 1988 Calgary Olympics was speed skating. Of the 17 medals Canadians won in Utah in 2002, nine were by speed skaters on both the short and long track. Further confirmation came in Torino in 2006 when 12 of 24 medals won by Canadian athletes were claimed by speed skaters.
The Canadian flag bearer for the opening ceremony in Salt Lake City was Catriona Le May Doan. She too made history by becoming the first Canadian Olympian to repeat as gold medallist in an individual event when she claimed the women’s 500 sprint after also taking top spot in Nagano.
“It’s more pressure than I will ever feel again in my life,” Le May Doan recalled over the phone from her home in Calgary.
But she did bear it, and she ended up becoming an iconic figure in Canada’s Olympic history. Now president and CEO of Sport Calgary, Le May Doan suggests the success speed skating has enjoyed for the past generation in Canada rests with the confidence that came to the fore at the first Games of the new millennium.
“The 2000s were the confirmation that it takes time to create success and a strong high-performance program,” she figured.
“You can have coaching, the environment, facility, support staff, experts and talented athletes. You can have all of that but if you don’t have belief in the program you’re done.”
The 2000s proved that in Canada and around the world, a new generation of superstars had found firm footing at both the winter and summer Games. The history made at five editions of the Olympics in this decade will be revisited at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 30. The program will be streamed live at cbcsports.ca and aired across the CBC television network. Check local listings for the time in your area.
Looking ahead, next Saturday’s Olympic Games Replay will feature equestrian sport, including show jumping gold and silver medals at the 2008 Olympics as well the historic RBC Grand Prix of Canada from Spruce Meadows in 2019. Also included will be a documentary on the amazing career of Canadian show jumping legend ‘Captain Canada’ Ian Millar.