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Sports Six years after the London Olympics, Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard finally gets her gold

Olympic weightlifter Christine Girard wears her bronze medal from the 2012 London Olympics while posing for a photograph in the gym at her home in White Rock, B.C., on Sept. 15, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK

Christine Girard woke up calm.

It was a Tuesday morning, the last day of July, at the start of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Girard, a weightlifter, was a medal contender in the women’s 63-kilogram event. The podium promised redemption for the 27-year-old Canadian, after a fourth-place finish four years earlier at the Beijing Olympics.

A week before London, however, Girard had hurt her right shoulder training in France. She couldn’t raise her arm, and days of intense physiotherapy followed. On waking in London, there was no stress. It was a cool day. Girard did some mental prep and watched a bit of television. She didn’t know if her shoulder would buckle but she felt ready.

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On the competition platform midafternoon, her face steeled, Girard shouted “Let’s go!” to herself. The first lift was the snatch. The weightlifter hoists the bar from the ground over her head in one deceptively complex motion. Girard started with 103 kilos, one more than her best in Beijing.

She got the bar over her head.

Her body was shaking under the weight.

Her hurting shoulder held up.

Girard missed her next two snatches. The clean and jerk followed, in which a weightlifter first pulls the bar to her shoulders before pushing it above her head. It’s the king of lifts, where competitions are won or lost. Girard nailed her first two clean and jerks. Her total was 236 kilos – more than 500 pounds.

Girard’s husband, Walter Bailey, a former weightlifter who joined Girard in London as a second coach, knew she had enough to win bronze. But when Girard failed on her last lift, she was, for a moment, riven by pain. She thought she had finished fourth, again. Stepping off stage, she saw Bailey smiling. He flashed three fingers: Third, an Olympic medal, bronze.

On the medal podium, Girard watched the Canadian flag rise and gazed out at her parents in the crowd. Afterward, Girard was ebullient. “It feels so good. I’m so happy,” she told an interviewer. “It was the best moment of my life.” Asked if anything else compared, Girard laughed. “Well, I guess I should say my wedding!”

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That evening, after celebrating with her family, Girard stared at her bronze medal before bed. “This is mine,” she thought. “I really am an Olympic medalist.”

Four years later, the moment became irrevocably tarnished.

The dirtiest sport

Signs of cheating in weightlifting were always there. Girard could see masculine attributes in some of her competitors, enlarged Adam’s apples or facial hair. She would notice catheters discarded in garbage cans backstage at lesser events.

“It was part of our reality,” says Girard, in an interview at her home in the Vancouver suburbs. “I made peace with that, years ago. Life isn’t fair.”

Advancements in anti-doping technology have exposed weightlifting as the dirtiest sport at the Summer Olympics. Before the 2008 Beijing games, the International Olympic Committee said it would undertake long-term storage of urine samples from athletes. It was meant as a deterrence, in the hope that detection technology would improve. In the past, steroid use was difficult to undercover. Drug tests could be beat. New methods now let investigators see indications of drug use from months before a urine sample is collected.

In 2016, the reanalysis of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics began to emerge. The new testing revealed what the IOC called an “unfortunately spectacular and unprecedented high number of positive cases.” In total, there were 111 positive samples discovered from cheaters, with 49 in weightlifting, followed by 46 in track and field.

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Of the positive tests, more than half – 61 – were medalists.

And nearly half of those – 30 – were weightlifters.

Back at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, years before the rampant use of anabolic steroids in her sport was uncovered, Girard was 23 – and she had a shot at a medal. The university gymnasium where weightlifting was staged was full and the crowd was enthusiastic. Girard started well and was in contention after the snatch portion of the event but faltered during the clean and jerk. On her final lift, she had 130 kilograms above her head but couldn’t hold it. The bar and plates slammed to the floor.

Girard finished fourth.

That night, she couldn’t sleep. Her mind churned over her mistakes. “Why? Why?” she thought. “What went wrong?” After Beijing, Girard felt burned out. She finished university and moved from home in Quebec to the Vancouver area, where her then-boyfriend Walter Bailey had grown up and secured a job as an RCMP officer.

Girard didn’t speak much English. It was lonely. Most of the time, working on threadbare funding and without much coaching, she trained alone in the unheated carport of the house she and Walter rented from his parents. The core of the training was twice-a-day sessions, three days a week. She wanted her dog around for company but the dog didn’t like crash of the weights hitting the ground. The pounding left cracks in the cement.

The grind produced results. In 2010, Girard won gold at the Commonwealth Games. In 2011, she won gold at the Pan Am Games, where she set a Pan Am record in her weight class. She lifted 238 kilos, 10 more than in Beijing. It was nine months before London. Girard was poised for redemption.

‘We should have all been able to celebrate’

In the span of 10 weeks, in the summer of 2016, Girard’s fourth in Beijing and bronze in London began to transform into bronze and gold.

The first news came when Girard and her husband were at a doctor’s office with their infant daughter for a check-up. Bailey saw the news on his phone. Maiya Maneza, a Kazakh who won gold ahead of Girard in London, was on a list of “adverse analytical findings,” the first indication Girard’s bronze was getting an upgrade, to silver. The couple laughed about the new medal they had to celebrate. The doctor asked if she had missed a joke.

“No,” exclaimed Girard, “you missed a silver medal at the Olympics!”

When Girard found out she was in line for gold – after Russian Svetlana Tsarukaeva, the 2012 silver medalist, was caught – her feelings grew more complex. Girard was coaching at the home gym the couple had built in their backyard. Part of Bailey’s daily routine was to check for new cheats and he texted Girard the news: “Congrats.” Girard wasn’t struck by any grand feeling of victory. She couldn’t help think about what could have been, what should have been: her moment on top of the podium to savour gold.

It happened again, a month later, when Girard was home with family in Quebec. She found out the silver medalist in Beijing, Kazakh Irina Nekrassova, was set to be disqualified. Amid congratulations, the news shook Girard, the sudden reality that she should not have been subjected to the pain of her fourth-place finish in Beijing and the struggles thereafter.

Now – almost another two years later – the IOC on Thursday this week officially confirmed Girard will be awarded gold for 2012. A medal ceremony, for both the London gold and the Beijing bronze, will be staged for Girard, likely by the end of this summer. It is one long decade after Beijing and six years after London.

There can never be a true restitution. The lift of bronze in Beijing was lost. It would have been Canada’s first medal of those Olympics. The glory of gold in London, Canada’s first gold there – the personal achievement, the potential profit – never happened.

“What if I had my gold medal in London?” says Girard. “If it was our anthem playing when I was watching my parents on the other side of the flag rising? It would have been so much more. Maybe I would have been on cereal boxes. It could have been much bigger. For my sport, too. How many little girls would have wanted to do weightlifting? It’s a sport that’s empowering. For most people it’s a man’s sport.”

Her hope now, after all this time, is that this gold medal – Canada’s first ever in weightlifting – garners at least some attention, that it can stand as a victory for clean sport. That it inspires Canadians. And that it draws girls to the sport.

Still, the emotions of what should have been are hard to shake off.

“It sucks,” she says. “And a lot of people will say, ‘Too bad you missed your moment.’ It’s not just me that missed out. It’s the whole country that missed that moment, the gold. We should have all been able to celebrate.”

One salve is her family, her three young children. Another is forgiveness. Girard doesn’t harbour anger towards the three women who were caught cheating, the women she could blame.

“I feel sad for them,” says Girard. “As weird as it sounds. They probably had no choice. It’s their countries. It’s not those girls.”

Another outlet has been putting words on paper. Girard’s memoir, From Defeat to Victory, was published in French in March and will be translated to English.

“The truth is that the flag of my country should have been higher than the others,” Girard writes of London. “It is our national anthem that should have played.” The journey between Beijing and London, however, is integral to who she is. “Those years were difficult but they were also magical. They are a part of me and I do not know who I would be without them.”

While Girard’s feelings oscillate, where there might be bitterness, she is happy.

“I know I won’t get any money from it now,” says Girard. “I’ll just get two medals and it will be one day and it will be done. So hopefully it will be a good ceremony. I hope it will be fun.”

She laughs. She has an easy laugh.

“What’s done is done,” she says. “Who would cry to get a gold? It’s amazing, and it’s amazing for my sport. Even though it could have been much bigger, it’s still big.”

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