New Olympics boss Marnie McBean knows how to bring attitude. For 2020, she’s championing diversity

For Marnie McBean, being named Canadian chef de mission for the 2020 Summer Olympics is the cherry on a career devoted to sports and mentoring of athletes, writes Rosie DiManno.

By Rosie DiManno Toronto Star Columnist Wed., July 3, 2019


At the Barcelona Olympics, as I recall, Marnie McBean had a Fan Boys Club of gaga reporters from Canada.

They were all in thrall to the beauteous and sassy rower from Toronto.

Of course, she could have broken every one of their necks with those mesomorphic, ball-busting, oar-driving thighs.

Twenty-seven years later — good golly, 27 years — McBean rolls her eyes when a scribbler reminds her of the gaga adulation. Suggests maybe the sports correspondents merely appreciated her way with a pungent quote. “I’ve never been able to check what comes out of my mouth. Hey, bring Marnie over.”

The female rowers on Team Canada were goddesses. And I hope McBean forgives me for saying so because the discussion at hand is actually how sexist coverage of women athletes has been over the decades.

“Silken was described as a Nordic Valkyrie with the thousand-watt smile.”

Another eye-roll. Silken Laumann, famous for training with men, showed her Iron Man chops by winning bronze at Barcelona in single sculls a mere 10 weeks after suffering horrific injury — fractured fibula — in a boat collision during training.

The conversation around sportswomen, the stereotypes and lazy metaphors, really began to change at those 1992 Games.

“Our group came through and it was super-cool to be reading these articles where they were talking about us being competitive and aggressive,” McBean recalls. “Because that wasn’t how women were covered in sports. We had muscles. It was still being questioned: What was feminine? Now I look at athletes and how proud they are of the physicality. I would say the Canadian extreme is Kallie Humphries.” Two-time Olympic bobsledding champion. “She just loves showing her body and her muscles and how strong she is.”

McBean, now 51, wryly remembers being issued a gender-ID card at the Olympics. At one time, only Princess Anne, an Olympic equestrienne, was permitted to forgo gender testing.

“The needle has moved.”

McBean won four Olympic medals in rowing, including three gold, making her one of just two Canadians triple-crowned at the Games. The other is Kathleen Heddle, McBean’s partner in the coxless pair at Barcelona and in the double sculls at Atlanta in 1996. They were also members of the slam-bang gold eights crew in Barcelona and took bronze in quadruple sculls four years later.

Marnie McBean won four Olympic medals in rowing, including three gold. She is pictured here after winning the women's single sculls final at the Pan Am games in 1999.

At the Sydney Games, the “McBean Machine” broke down, forced to pull out of the Olympics because of two herniated discs, a long-standing back issue aggravated by the 22-hour flight to Australia. But even lying flat on her back in the rear of a van, in agony, she screamed with joy when a radio broadcast informed that Kingston-born Simon Whitfield had just captured gold in the inaugural triathlon event.

McBean is a jock and Maple Leaf-waving Canadian down to the marrow. This week she was formally introduced as the chef de mission for Team Canada at the Tokyo Games next summer.

It is the cherry on a career devoted to sports and mentoring of athletes. What McBean brings to the job — which she insists will be more athletes-oriented and less head-of-delegation dignitary ceremonial — is a lifelong passion and intimate familiarity with both the ecstasy and the agony of sports, especially on the pressure-infused Olympic stage.

“Between now and then I’m an ambassador for the team, a spokesperson,” she explains of a gig that’s never been properly understood or even well-defined. “I want to start messaging right away to athletes in a mentoring role, normalizing some of the things that will make their path easier. I can never make their load lighter but I can make it easier for them to bear it.”

Younger Canadians with little knowledge of Olympic history before the gold rush of the Vancouver Games in 2010 — Canada finished third on the medal table, including 14 golds — would be scarcely aware of what a hardware pauper this country had been. Twice previously hosting the Games and both times coming away gold-less. That all changed dramatically via the Own The Podium program that targeted elite prospects, funded training, ensured top-drawer coaching and created a regime out of high-performance. The legacy, morphed into enduring concept, has carried through to subsequent Games.

But there was also an attitudinal adjustment. Canadian athletes began to see themselves as good enough to beat anybody, not simply satisfied with a top-8 finish or personal best.

The country has always produced extraordinary athletes such as Donovan Bailey — the entire Atlanta sprint squad actually — and long-track speedskater Cindy Klassen, who wrote herself into the Olympic record book with five medals at the Turin Games. But their exceptionalism was almost freaky in uniqueness. “Cindy was such an outlier,” says McBean. “She killed it. And we were so shocked that we could have a person like that.”

Canadians taught themselves how to strut. And they got good at besting. They expect to win. They mean to dominate.

To illustrate the point, McBean — whose been within Olympic circles since retirement — remembers how the team in Beijing came up with five inspirational words to keep front of mind. “Words like unity and caring and one of them wasn’t even a single word, it was being ‘genuinely respectful.’”

Mushy stuff. Not killer. By London in 2012, the label words had transitioned to powerful, proud, resilient …

“We’re not outliers anymore.”

McBean doesn’t doubt Canadian will and fortitude heading into Tokyo. The banner she intends to carry, however, reads diversity and inclusivity.

“Be your authentic self,” she proclaims. “That includes your social, your cultural and your emotionally authentic self. It’s possible for confident and doubtful to coexist. To be confident and doubtful at the same time.”

Sexually authentic too, if an athlete chooses to make a statement about it. As McBean did when she came out as a lesbian following retirement. (She married her partner in 2014 and they have a 4-year-old daughter.) “I’m not going to hide that I’m a gay woman but that’s not my story.” Meaning, that’s not the exclamation point on her story.

“Our team is going to be a safe and open space for self-expression and dialogue,” she’s declared. “Athletes shouldn’t arrive to their field of play exhausted and stressed from trying to negotiate social and cultural barriers.”

The Olympics no longer gives a toss about sexual identification. But some sports federations are twisted into a knot, now, about gender identification, transgender and intersex athletes, with courts weighing in on the likes of Caster Semenya, reigning 800 m Olympic champion. 800 m gold medallist in Rio. The South African is a female — not transgender — with unusually high testosterone levels which, some argue, has given her an unfair competitive advantage if not suppressed by hormonal drugs.

“Usain Bolt was winning the 100 by a larger percentage that Caster Semenya is winning her race,” McBean notes. “Nobody said Usain had an unfair advantage,” because of his genetic gifts. “So why draw the line on her?

“On the Canadian team the goal is to make sure everybody is competing in the event that they choose to compete in as their authentic selves. We’re waiting for the international community to catch up with Canadian sensibilities.”

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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