Former Olympian living in Airdrie reflects on Sydney Games
Lots of people play badminton, but very few get the opportunity to play it at the Olympic level. Airdrie’s Milaine Cloutier is one of those few. Twelve years ago, she represented Canada at the Summer Games in Sydney, Aus.
Growing up in Granby, Que., a town of 50,000 an hour east of Montreal, Cloutier played every sport imaginable: basketball, volleyball, tennis and figure skating, but it was badminton that stuck.
“I started playing when I was nine years old. My brother was the big instigator,” she said. “He took me to a practise at his high school. I did every sport at the time, so I didn’t know it was going to be badminton.”
She began playing competitively three years later. At her first provincial tournament, she drew the No. 1-ranked player in the first round, defeated her and went on to win the tournament. She started to enjoy the game a bit more and kept climbing the ladder, competing at the national level at 15 and internationally at 16.
However, her dream of competing at the Olympics began years before. When she was four years old, she sat on her father’s lap and watched as Nadia Comeneci became the first female gymnast to receive a perfect score of 10 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Cloutier told her father that she’d be in the Olympics one day, and he told her she’d have to pick a sport. So, she chose badminton.
Badminton was implemented as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, Korea and became an official Olympic sport in 1992 in Barcelona. Cloutier had her sights set on competing at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Ga., but tore her ACL in 1995.
Her next goal was Sydney, but the qualifying process was an arduous one. While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only required a team to be the top in the Pan-American zone, Badminton Canada stated that the team also had to be among the top 23 in the world. Cloutier dedicated the year leading up to the Games to competing, training and calculating where she and her doubles partner, Robbyn Hermitage, would have to place in order to qualify for the Games.
“It was extremely stressful because you don’t know until the last week (whether you’ve qualified),” she said. “Every Thursday, the new world ranking would come out and I would calculate who was above us, what tournaments they played the following year and where they placed. It was a full-time job.”
When they did qualify, Cloutier and Hermitage, who had been playing together for eight years in the lead-up to the Games, celebrated by getting Olympic tattoos, a trend among many athletes, but the fact that they were part of Team Canada didn’t sink in until they were handed their tickets to Australia.
Once she arrived in Sydney, Cloutier got to experience almost every aspect of the Games. She walked in the opening ceremonies, but said it was a different atmosphere than walking into the Pan-Am Games ceremonies, which were held in Winnipeg in 1999.
“(At the Pan-Am Games), we got to walk in last and you’re at home, so people are going wild for you,” she said. “(In Sydney), once we marched in, we were put in the middle of the field. You have all the volleyball and basketball players who are seven-feet tall in front of you and you can’t see anything, so we played cards until the show was over.
“It’s almost better to watch it on TV because then you can see everything.”
According to Cloutier, Sydney buzzed with the Olympic spirit, even outside of the athletes’ village. The competitors were welcomed by the Australians with open arms and treated like royalty. The athletes also got the chance to support each other. While at Canada House to watch Daniel Nestor and Sebastien Lareau win the men’s doubles gold in tennis, Cloutier met triathlete Simon Whitfield, who was Canada’s flag bearer at the 2012 opening ceremonies in London.
“He was a super nice guy,” she said. “He was very humble.”
She also witnessed a number of other young Olympians begin their storied careers, including now-retired gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, diver Alexandre Despatie and multi-sport Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser.
Cloutier played all three disciplines in Sydney: singles, mixed and ladies doubles, but Team Canada’s best placement was in ladies doubles, where she and Hermitage were eliminated in the Round of 16 Even back then, the Asian countries dominated the sport and the match-throwing scandal in the first week of the 2012 Games, which saw eight teams disqualified for purposely losing matches in order to be seeded lower, is something that Cloutier has seen before in her years on the court.
“It’s nothing new,” she said.
“It’s been going on for years, and we’re not the only sport that’s in this situation. I’m glad somebody finally put their pants on and decided to do something about it. This wasn’t a light decision to take and there were a lot of things to consider when they decided to pull those teams out.”
Cloutier said the disqualification of the teams has the potential to impact the sport for the next few years if any of the teams, all of which are highly ranked, decide to boycott future competitions. She also said part of the blame can be placed on a change in the tournament format. In 2000, players who qualified could compete in all three disciplines (singles, ladies or men’s doubles and mixed doubles), but one loss meant they were eliminated from the tournament. In London, the tournament was played as a round-robin format, which led the disqualified teams to throw matches in order to get a lower seeding.
“It was very bad,” Cloutier said of watching the thrown matches. “At this level, in an entire match you might miss one serve. You don’t want to sit there and watch them serve into the net.”
However, Cloutier sees a silver lining in the scandal. The elimination of the eight teams gave Canadians Alex Bruce and Michele Li a chance at a medal and made badminton the most talked about sport in the Games for a few days.
“It was free exposure for us,” said Cloutier, who has played against Bruce and Li before.
“We ended up seeing two Canadians who were battling for medals that you would’ve never seen otherwise. I was pretty proud of my girls.”
Cloutier’s Olympic career ended in Sydney, but she continued to play internationally, competing at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and at the World Championships in Paris in 2010. She now plays at the Masters level and won the World Masters 35+ championship last year in Richmond, B.C.
Now, she watches the Games just like any other fan, taking in every sport she can. The only difference is she gets to relive her memories of Sydney.
“I get goosebumps,” she said. “It’s tough to play, especially in badminton. I like watching all the sports. Anything that has Canadians in it, I like to watch. I’m very proud to be Canadian.”