Ed Willes: Girard awarded Olympic gold and bronze medals after medallists test positive for drugs

The bitterness, Christine Girard will tell you, has dissipated over time and standing here on this day she can only think of the great things her long and complicated journey represents.

For starters, she was able to share it with her three children who didn’t understand everything that was going on at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, but knew there was a party involving their mother.

“My four-year-old (son Philip) thought it was my birthday,” Girard says over the phone. “He’s going to be disappointed when my real birthday comes around and the same thing doesn’t happen.”

She was also able to share it with her husband, Walter Bailey, who doubled as her coach, trainer and one-man support system in the good times and bad. And there were her parents. And her extended family. And coaches, athletes and administrators who knew what this day meant.

But mostly she thought this celebration was a triumph for her values, for drug-free sport and every athlete who resisted an easier path. Six years ago in London she stood on the podium with a bronze medal around her neck and tears in her eyes, and that was a remarkable achievement for the weightlifter. But this day was about something else. It was about her country, her code and winning the right way, and if it was six years too late, so be it.

“It took me a bit of time to accept what I didn’t get, but I can see what I’m getting now and the value of this medal is a lot more,” says Girard. “I’ve got all these opportunities now to tell my story and I’m really proud of that. I have a chance to fight for clean sport.

“This medal doesn’t have the same flavour.”

Even if it’s every bit as sweet.

Girard, the 33-year-old from Rouyn-Noranda, Que., by way of White Rock who now lives in the National Capital Region, was finally awarded the gold medal Monday that should been hers in London at the 2012 Games. It was a precious moment for this women and her family, and one that received the royal treatment from the Canadian Olympic Committee. But if Girard isn’t resentful about the events that brought her to this place, the rest of the country can be angry for her.

At the London Games Girard made Canadian Olympic history by winning a bronze in weightlifting. It was the first time that a Canadian women had ever medalled in the event, which was its own kind of special. But it was Girard’s backstory that made her performance memorable.

Then 27, her training centre was a quasi-gym Walter, an RCMP officer, had constructed in the garage of their home in White Rock.

Then came London. Four years after a crushing fourth-place finish in Beijing — more on that later — she won the bronze in the 63-kilogram class by lifting twice her body weight, then set an unofficial Olympic record for most consecutive hugs. She met with the assembled reporters afterwards, still glowing, and was asked by a francophone reporter if she considered herself an Ontarian, a Quebecer or a British Columbian.

Girard flashed her fingernails that had alternately been painted red-and-white and said: “Je suis une Canadienne.”

“She’s gone through so many challenges in the last four years to get to where she is today,” her husband said at the time. “A lesser person would have given up 100 times.”

But that was just Chapter 1 of her story. In the ensuing years the IOC would retest some 1,500 urine samples from the Beijing and London Games and uncover positive tests for the two lifters who finished ahead of Girard, Kazakhstan’s Maiya Maneza and Russia’s Svetlana Tsarukayeva. That was in 2016. After the perfunctory appeals, Girard learned this April that she had won the gold. The award ceremony was finally held six months later.

Girard’s fourth-place finish in Beijing, meanwhile, had also been promoted to a bronze, and the two medals resulted in a $30,000 payday from the COC. But that didn’t compensate fully for the missed opportunity in London. A gold in 2012 would have made her an instant celebrity and increased the funding for weightlifting exponentially.

It would have changed her life.

Her husband was asked about that.

“I think the frustration has been processed,” Walter said. “We’re at a different stage in our lives now. The time has helped.”

And her life changed in its own way. She retired from weightlifting, became a coach and a mother, and now an advocate for clean sport. She says the last couple of weeks has allowed her to revisit her former life as an athlete and that was fun.

But it didn’t sound like she was in a hurry to return there.

“I made peace with that life,” she said.

She is speaking a few minutes after a prolonged photo-op in Ottawa. After the formal photos were taken with various dignitaries, her kids — daughter Aliana, 2, and nine-month-old Samuel round out the roster — climbed up on the podium and posed happily for the cameras.

“They liked showing off,” their mother said, with a laugh. “They didn’t understand it, but one day they’ll be able to look at those pictures.”

And they’ll see a Canadian heroine.

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