16 janvier 2009

Family on track for 2010 spots

Cross country star turns to stadium announcing as son makes bid to fill his ski boots

Mike Beamish

Canada's greatest male cross country skier and his son, who could be the next, are both auditioning for a place in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Pierre Harvey, 51, is just like his son Alex, 20, one of the rising young stars on the international nordic scene. Neither Harvey is guaranteed a place in the Whistler Games next February, however, though Alex's performance this weekend against the world's elite in only the fourth World Cup cross country ski event ever staged in Canada could move him closer to that goal.

Pierre is trying to make a return trip to Whistler as a stadium announcer. VANOC, the organizing committee, invited him to to do French language commentary at the pre-Olympic test events for cross country and nordic combined this weekend in the Callaghan Valley. If he passes the test, he'll be back next year.

"If I don't do a good job, they'll put me out," Pierre says with a chuckle.

At the 1988 Games in Calgary, the last time the Olympics were held in Canada, Pierre Harvey was given the greatest honour among all Canadian competitors when he was asked to recite the Athlete's Oath at the openings ceremonies. He was a true trailblazer in Canadian sport -- the first male athlete from Canada ever to compete in two different Olympics in the same year, 1984, at the Los Angeles Summer Games and the Sarajevo Winter Games. As a cyclist, Harvey was a member of the Canadian road racing team that helped pull Steve Bauer of St. Catharines, Ont., along to a silver medal in L.A.

In most respects, the four-time Olympian [two Summer Games, two Winter] was an athlete of freakish ability. Harvey ran the 1990 New York Marathon in two hours, 41 minutes, the first time he ever attempted the distance, two years after he retired as an Olympic athlete. He finished 153rd among 25,012 starters.

In the 1980s, Pierre Harvey surpassed all previous standards set by Canadians in cross-country skiing when he became the first to win a World Cup event in a sport dominated by Norwegians and Finns. He beat the best of Europe two more times on their home hills, including a victory in the 50th Norwegian Birkebeiner, considered the Super Bowl of the sport.

Beckie Scott, Canada's first Olympic gold medalist in cross country skiing and a 17-time World Cup medalist, was 13 when she watched Pierre Harvey compete in the Calgary Olympics. Soon after, she adopted her role model.

"Pierre was definitely the guy who was making headlines when I started racing," says Scott, who is in Whistler as a television commentator. "It was thrilling to watch him in Calgary. He became an inspiration."

Pierre's son, Alex, was born seven months later. Now in his first season with the Canadian senior men's team, Alex is carving a path to the World Cup circuit in his own unique way. After abandoning alpine skiing for nordic at the age of 12, he became the first Canadian to win two medals at the world junior cross-country championships, in 2007 and 2008. Appropriately, he trains with the Club Nordique Mont Ste-Anne near Quebec City, at the Pierre Harvey National Training Centre named after his father.

"My dad introduced me to the sport but I made the decision to get serious myself," Alex says. "When Beckie won the bronze at first [later upgraded to gold] in Salt Lake City [2002], that's when I thought, 'Canadians are really doing it in the Olympics.' The guys are doing so well now -- George [Grey], Devon [Kershaw], Ivan [Babikov] . . . I've been in some training camps with them. I know now what it takes to do it."

"Alex is the real deal," agrees Kershaw, a seven-year veteran of the senior team who won a World Cup bronze in 2006, the first male podium finisher for Canada in more than 15 years. "Alex is a phenomenal athlete and his dad, of course, is the most successful male athlete ever in our program, hands down. I think Alex has all the potential there to surpass his father, absolutely."

Pierre Harvey knows what it takes to be a champion because he's been one, many times over. He's making no predictions for his son, who will be competing in just his third World Cup event starting today at Whistler Olympic Park. But a living institution for Canada's cross country skiers can't help but feel a father's pride in knowing a second Harvey is beginning to generate some of the same buzz.

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