Christine Girard gets her golden moment, much later than deserved

Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard holds up the gold and bronze Olympic medals she was awarded during a ceremony Monday December 3, 2018 in Ottawa. Girard was awarded the 2012 London gold and 2008 Beijing bronze medals after the International Olympic Committee disqualified athletes from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

OTTAWA, Ont. — For six years, Christine Girard kept an Olympic medal that wasn’t rightfully hers in a closet at her home, and it hung there, a reminder of an accomplishment she’d worked toward most of her life. It’s just that the medal was the wrong colour.

And so, a couple of months ago, Girard put that 2012 bronze medal in the mail and sent it to officials with the International Olympic Committee. After that, the weightlifter who until recently had been introducing herself as “a future medallist of past Olympics” (wrap your head around that label) waited to receive what she deserved.

Now, finally — at last — Girard has what she rightfully earned: 2012 Olympic gold and 2008 Olympic bronze. Six and 10 years late, a delay caused by competitors in the 63-kilogram weight class who cheated but only got caught on re-tested samples in 2016, then had their medals stripped.

“I can’t even describe the feeling,” says Girard, a 33-year-old mother of three, grinning.

And rightly so. Christine Girard is now officially an Olympic champion in weightlifting, the only Canadian ever to achieve the feat. She’s officially an Olympic bronze medallist from 2008, when she thought she came fourth, and the gold medallist in 2012, when she thought she’d won bronze.

On Monday, as more than 100 people looked on from a lower level foyer at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, while high school kids belted out O Canada, Girard stood atop a podium with those medals around her neck and she threw up her arms. The champion had tears in her eyes as she looked into the crowd and said: “Thank you so much.”

That she stood atop a podium covered with purple fabric is no coincidence, because that’s the colour of the podium she should’ve stood atop as Olympic champion, more than six years ago in London. The Canadian Olympic Committee did everything it could to make this handing out of re-assigned medals feel like a huge event, with two Mounties in attendance and kids singing and sizzle reels and pictures, but nothing could have made up for the moments Girard has been robbed of.

Being denied the bronze medal, she says, hurts the most.

“That was harder to take, because the four years for me between 2008 and 2012 was so hard,” says Girard. “I learned that instead of feeling like a failure when I came back from 2008, I should have felt like a champion. I felt like those four years were a lie and it shouldn’t have been that way. I should’ve had support. I should’ve had sponsors. I would have had the first medal for our country in 2008 and the only medal for three days during those Games. Imagine how much attention I would have had, and how my sport would have benefitted from that, and how all those girls who are doing sports that are not well recognized would have seen it.”

We can only imagine. Life, she says, would no doubt have been different had Girard been given that medal she earned a decade ago, which would’ve made her the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic medal in weightlifting four years earlier than she thought she’d achieved the feat.

There’s no doubt in Girard’s mind that she won’t get the financial help she would have had she received these medals when she actually earned them. “I’m convinced that I won’t, and I’m convinced that I lost a lot,” says Girard. “I trained in a car port that was barely heated [between the 2008 and 2012 Olympics], that’s how I built a gold medal from London. If I had that medal a long time I would’ve had a different life, that’s for sure.”

Then, in the next breath, Girard adds: “But now I have the chance to go out there and tell my story and say, ‘Hey, it’s worth it to believe, it’s worth it to do it the right way.’”

The thing is, Girard has every right to be angry. We can’t measure the emotional or financial impact, but she missed out on carding money in 2008 and should’ve made $20,000 for her gold medal in 2012, compared to the $10,000 she was given. (She’ll be paid that extra $10,000.) She should’ve belted out the Canadian anthem in 2012, should’ve brought Canada’s total gold medal count at those Games to two, should’ve felt like a champion that day.

Girard says she was upset at first, but she’s focused on what she can control. “I had time to digest and now I see the message. If I could talk to that little eight-year-old that didn’t believe that it was possible to win a medal in my sport clean, and show her my medals?” she says. “That’s what I want to do with other kids now, show them it’s possible, so they can believe like me.”

Girard hasn’t spoken to the three women who cheated, Irina Nekrassova and Maiya Maneza of Kazakhstan and Russian Svetlana Tsarukaeva. “What I would say is probably not what you’d expect,” she says. “I’m not upset with those girls, I really feel sorry for them because they come from countries where we believe that they have systemic doping. It’s probably not their choice — if they want to lift weights they have to dope. If I could reach out to them I would tell them I’m sorry they had to go through that and I really hope the international committee of every sport can get together and protect athletes from those countries that have systemic doping so they don’t have to go through that.”

It’s the grace and poise with which Girard has handled this whole process that stands out to many, including rower Adam van Koeverden, a four-time Olympic medallist.

“I really think she’s incredible for not being resentful and angry. She’s a great example of Canadian sportsmanship and class,” says van Koeverden. “The biggest thing that Christine’s been robbed of is the chance to tell Canadians about her victory. That’s the thing I think is the most tragic, that cheating robbed her of the opportunity to tell a winning story to Canadians. And frankly all Canadians have been robbed of that because she has an amazing story and she’s an incredible athlete and, you know, we did win two gold medals in London, and it’s so sad that it’s retroactive.

“I hope people treat her like an Olympic champion,” van Koeverden adds. “Hire her for speaking engagements so she can tell her victorious story. I hope schools and businesses invite her out. She’s an Olympic champion and she deserves all that was taken from her.”

Yes, even if it’s hard to forget all she’s lost because of doping, the focus should be on Girard, on that little girl who grew up thinking she could never win an Olympic medal clean, and the woman who proved that girl wrong, twice. The focus should be on the kid who started lifting so young that the coach allowed her only to use a wooden stick, and somehow, she didn’t get bored, training with that stick until he let her pick up actual weights.

As the video screen in Ottawa showed Girard hoisting a barbell above her head in London and then slamming it down, thinking she’d secured a bronze medal, COC president Tricia Smith turned to Girard, up on stage. “You just won the gold medal,” Smith told her.

And then Girard told the crowd: “That’s the message, that we can win the right way.”

She proved it, even if it took a heck of a lot of time and patience.

Girard looks down at medals hanging around her neck, and decides these won’t get hung in the closet at home. “I’ll frame them,” she says.

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