Team Canada ruins McKeever’s dream

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist
Yahoo! Sports

You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsOLY

WHISTLER, British Columbia – Canada should have given the podium away. Just this once, it should have let Brian McKeever race.

It should have done so because the Vancouver Games aren't all about medals, times and endorsements. It should have done so because, while legally blind, McKeever sees his Olympic dream with his heart – and that's what this should all be about. It should have done so because that rallying cry of "Own the Podium" isn't the definition of Canadians in these Games.

Brian McKeever competes in the 50K cross-country race at the 2007 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.
(Gepa/US Presswire)

Most of all, Canada should have let Brian McKeever race because it brought him to Vancouver in the first place. It gave him the gift of chasing his dream, and something like that should never be taken back.

Make no mistake, this was an uncommon, crucial decision. It was the difference between chasing national glory and embracing an athlete who doesn't need a medal to deliver it. McKeever could have been that athlete. If only his country would have let it happen.

McKeever, a Canadian cross-country skier who has been robbed of all but 10 percent of his vision, was slated to race in the 50-kilometer marathon on Sunday, one of the final events before the Closing Ceremony. It would have made him the first Winter Games athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But he was bumped from the team Friday night, as Canada’s cross-country program chose to fill its maximum four entries with skiers who had fared well in earlier events.

Early Saturday morning, McKeever posted a solitary message on his Twitter account: "Olympic dream over. Don't think I've ever been so sad."

You have to think the rest of Canada has to be a little sad, too. The cross-country program just canceled one of the most moving storylines of these Games.

Welcome to classic, clinical Olympic decision-making.

Canada's cross-country program has never been an international power, and never won an Olympic medal. But new coach Inge Braten was brought aboard to change that trend. So when the Canadian men notched six top-10 cross-country finishes in these Games – three of them in the 30K event – it became clear Canada had a chance to medal in the 50K. A chance that is most reachable if the Canadians field their best possible foursome.

That reality has left McKeever on the outside, as Braten chose four strong skiers who all had better odds at medaling than McKeever.

"I have to be professional," Braten told reporters. "I have to choose the guys who are best for the 50K. Normally, sorry to say, all four are faster than Brian. And I think they can fight for a medal – all four of them. And I then have to pick out one who has a medal chance and put in Brian?

"That's the situation. I don't like it."

To be fair, it's not an enviable position. Taking out a medal hopeful and replacing him with a lesser competitor almost runs contrary to the Olympic ideal. And in any other situation, it's a cold and understandable choice that gets made without much fanfare. Look no further than Alpine skiing, where many athletes travel to the Games but never get into an event, simply because they are trumped by someone who is a better medal contender.

But this isn't a normal circumstance, and McKeever is anything but an average story. He carries with him one of the special tales in these Games. A beam of light that keeps the Games joyful and embraceable, shining through the unavoidable pettiness intertwined with the Olympic rings. He gives us a distraction from the feuding teammates and questionable judging and commercialization. He lifts us and leaves us with an indelible memory … the kind of memory that draws us back again four years later.

McKeever is the product of a skiing family; his older brother Robin competed in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Brian loved the idea of following in those footsteps. A talent on the junior skiing circuit at the time, he watched his brother like he was watching his own dream. He thought it was beautiful.

One month after those Nagano Games, McKeever was diagnosed with Stargardt disease. He knew exactly what it was – a genetic macular degeneration that leads to blindness. His father had the disease but had hoped it would skip over his two sons. Robin was fortunate. Brian wasn't. Two years after his diagnosis, McKeever was declared legally blind at the age of 21.

Yet he never surrendered his dream of skiing. Despite his eyesight decaying to the point where he had less than 10 percent of his normal vision, he would step out on the snow, snap on his boots, and do his best to stay on the white between the green. The little vision that remained was peripheral, meaning he could see the edges of his vision, but not the middle. He often compares it to the hole in a doughnut – relating that he can see the outer edges of the doughnut, but not the middle.

McKeever took that doughnut and did amazing things with it, skiing in the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City and 2006 in Torino, capturing four golds, two silvers and one bronze in various cross-country races over that span. All the while, his brother Robin led the way, doing his part as McKeever's course guide. But it wasn't until December, when McKeever won a 50K Olympic trial race in convincing fashion – and without a guide – that his dream became a reality.

Brian McKeever, left, and his guide/brother Robin celebrate after they won gold in the Men's 10 km visually impaired cross country competition at the Turin 2006 Paralympic Winter Games.
(Giovanni Auletta/AP)

One month later, he was named to the Canadian Olympic cross-country team, in a fashion that drew national attention. Indeed, it appeared to be the full embrace. McKeever was trumpeted as the first Winter Games athlete who would compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

And he was held up to all Canadians as a testament to the human spirit. His status as an active Olympian seemed set in stone – so much so, that Visa even began airing his own commercial in February, featuring a voiceover from actor Morgan Freeman.

"I'm sometimes struck just by the beauty of what we get to do, and the places we get to see," McKeever said of the experience. "I'm thankful that I still can see what I do. We do live in a beautiful world. Sometimes we get jaded by the country that we live in – because we see it all the time."

Things changed for McKeever in recent days, of course. Braten and the Canadian cross-country program began to talk of opportunity. Not the opportunity of McKeever, but the opportunity of capturing the program's first medal. Winning a medal in the prestigious 50K would be a major step forward – an attention-grabber that shows the success in Vancouver has been more than a fluke. Risking that on McKeever, well, must have simply been too precarious.

Particularly when your country sunk $117 million into its "Own the Podium" initiative, which was aimed at Canada winning the medal count on its home turf. The results have been solid – third place in the overall medal count and first position in golds – but the message has not. Some Canadians recoiled at such a jingoistic slogan. Others in the media focused a critical spotlight on the Canadians' deficit behind the United States and Germany.

Somewhere in the middle of the race for supremacy, the tangible results of competition became more important than the athletes themselves. And a guy like McKeever got marginalized. Sure, sitting down another athlete in the 50K would have been difficult. But would it have been any more difficult than what the Canadians did to McKeever? Is it a coincidence that when they chose to cancel someone's dream, the cross-country team went for the guy who was most likely to inspire, but least likely to medal?

The truth is, Canada should have found a way to let McKeever compete on Sunday. It should have sat another athlete, or asked if someone was willing to step aside.

Instead, it made the obvious corporate decision. It went with numbers over nerve.

Perhaps Canada will add another medal to the count in the 50K. Maybe it will sweep the podium. But 10 years from now, when nobody can even remember the medal count, this moment will be remembered as a mistake.

Because in most cases, it's better to give away a podium and own hearts and minds instead.