Once in a great while, Canada gets a world-beater athlete in a sport the country doesn't emphasize. With Simon Whitfield's competitive days likely over, it's only natural to wonder if Canada's success in triathlon, for a time, was the program and some culture or it was pulled up by one shooting star.
Sometimes there's a tendency to get caught up in how the Olympic sports solons strategize to try to produce more Canadian medals. You can't hurry up and wait for a generational athlete to materialize, but a Whitfield or Myriam Bédard in biathlon during the 1990s can make a small sports federation seem capable of promising more than it can really deliver. Canada produces more major-league ballplayers than ever, but there's never been a Canadian pitcher to rival Ferguson Jenkins. There might be another Canadian NBA point guard like Steve Nash, but that's a 50/50 at best.
The new generation in triathlon personified by British twins Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee — coulda-been-anything athletes steered into the tri, not just people who love pushing their physical elements like its originators — gives pause to wonder if an era ended when Whitfield fell off his bike and suffered a fracture to his collarbone on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Triathlon Canada executive director Alan Trivett seemed to indicate that is eminently possible.
"There's only going to be one Simon Whitfield ever for the sport of triathlon in this country and we have him ... Replacing Simon is not really something we're concerned about doing. What we're trying to do... is find enough athletes in the pipeline so that we can ensure we have competitive teams every time we go to the world championship and every major games that we go to." (Sportsnet Radio The Fan 590)
The lesson from London probably is the need to develop some depth. Planning in endurance sports means factoring in for athlete attrition, be it age (Whitfield) or injury (Paula Findlay). It's possible that Triathlon Canada just had an exceptional run of bad luck with its high-performance director quitting 18 months before London 2012 and its two highest-profile athletes literally having bad breaks. Sometimes, though, what's called bad luck is just the chickens coming home to roost, which is why there probably will be some post-Games shuffling. One doubts Whitfield's public criticisms are going to get ignored; the people higher up should wonder what was behind his statements.
One should still be open to the possibility Findlay has plenty of time to get her hip fixed and try to recover her 2009-10 form by the middle of the Rio 2016 cycle. It is tough to see anyone having Canada down for a triathlon medal when the media plays the "how many medals will 'we' win?" game next time.
Perhaps that is how it should be. Call this naïve, but in an unpredictable sport such as triathlon, can Olympic success really be predicted? It should be akin to the marathon, where just qualifying people for it is feat enough. It's cool, for lack of a less uncool way to put it, that three Canadian men, Reid Coolaset, Eric Gillis and Dylan Wykes, are in the marathon. They won't medal, but that's not the end-all. With Whitfield likely retiring and Findlay's future torn asunder, Canada might have to get similarly philosophical about triathlon.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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