Renn Crichlow, Olympic hero

by Joe Clark

Is heroism a tediously outdated concept? Icons of middlebrow and high culture-- like Tina Turner and Barbara Kruger-- insist we don't need another hero, but of course what they mean is we don't need another false hero. We should, however, honour the real thing, and here he is: Renn Crichlow, canoeist-kayaker.

Let's discuss his electronic persona first, since that's how most of us who haven't had the pleasure of walking right up to him and shaking his hand, or, I dunno, planting a kiss have come to know him. Got to be careful about emphasis here: It might be going overboard to declare Renn a crip jock on account of his relatively severe asthma. (If anyone were born to wear Breathe Right strips, it's Renn. In fact, wasn't he wearing one strip piled on top of another during competition? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.) After a disappointing K1 heat in the claustrophobic humidity of Lake Lanier in Georgia, our man gave an interview with CBC in which the how's-your-asthma-today? question predictably came up. (He was quite evidently breathing hard, but not in distress. I guess The Man is used to breathing hard.) "It just feels like you're breathing soup today," le héros replied evenly. "It's pretty humid and a bit heavy, but no excuses.... I should have been up there, but I wasn't." (Humility. Hold that thought.)

The in-studio CBC hostrix then took over and name-dropped Renn as a Harvard medical student while l'homme Crichlow, all 6'2" and 202 pounds of him, was still visible on the video wall in the surreal image of the Olympics, with the camera near water level and Renn appearing to paddle away on nine panes of vertiginous grey wall-mounted water. This is the closest thing to postmodern a regular guy like Renn will get. (Renn scores cyborg points for practising a sport in which a kayak entirely swallows your legs and turns you into a sort of aquatic centaur. Also, most reasonable observers would agree that no one wearing a Canadian uniform in Atlanta looks better in Oakley shades, which emphasize his shaved head and, when he's excited, allow Renn's shockingly dark, almost mascaraed-looking brows to pop into view.)

All right, back to humility. He's been wildly successful before-- Renn has, for example, finished first, second, or third in world championships and has enjoyed awards, accolade, and broad respect-- but has still tasted the steely tang of disappointment rather too often. "A lot of people were counting on me," he told the Toronto Star. "My sport in Canada needed me to come through." Or: "It's hard to talk about it. It comes out sounding like an excuse. I paddled poorly and that about sums it up."

This is not a case of impaling himself on his paddle. The K4 final (with Renn, Mihai Apostal, Peter Giles, and Liam Jewell) brought the Canadians past the finish line seventh out of a field of eight. A failure? Well, they didn't win a medal, but Canada is not a powerhouse in K4-- we'd never finished better than eighth. Renn had his Jordanesque head screwed on right: "I've been watching U.S. television where the entire emphasis is on winning. I disagree," he said. "Our dream in this K4 was to end up fourth to sixth. We were seventh with an excellent effort, yet to hear the commentary, you'd think it wasn't worth anything. It is."

In a post-final CBC interview between laboured pants, Renn humbly and authoritatively and spontaneously averred, "Today was the best ever for Canada, and I think what really speaks well for Canada and for Canadian society is that we brought four guys together with vastly different backgrounds, from very different areas of the country, with vastly different personalities, and we've worked hard as a unit of four for the past 18 months and we had a best-ever result for Canada at the Olympic Games." After graciously thanking everyone who's supported him along the way, Renn concluded that "I think this boat really represents Canada as a whole."

Sigh. Gosh, does it ever. Or at least it represents how elite athletes should behave. But there's more: He's wistful, not bitter, after a long and difficult career. He recalls: "I was taking off my singlet to cool off [after the K4 final] and just at that moment, it hit me there wasn't much more I could do in this sport. I have nothing left to give. So I'm saying goodbye." Back in Barcelona, finishing eighth in the K1 1000m shook him up. "It was a shattering experience. The sense of emptiness I'm feeling now is nothing compared to 1992. I really believed that was my golden opportunity. Looking back, I see that it was-- never to return.''

But don't cry for Renn, Argentina. Think of what kind of doctor he'll make.

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