Brian McKeever's disappointment

Canada's blind cross-country skier told he won't participate in men's 50 km race

Brian McKeever hoped to make Olympic history. Now he’s not even sure if he’ll stay until the end of the Games.

The 30-year-old Calgarian was the last man to qualify for Canada’s cross-country team, punching his ticket at the Olympics trials in Canmore in Dec., with a surprise first-place finish in the 50 km race.

It’s not the sort of accomplishment the media normally takes note of, but McKeever’s story was a little different. Legally blind—he suffers from Stargardt’s disease, the most common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration, and has only 10 per cent vision—he was already an accomplished Paralympian, the winner of four gold, two silver and a bronze at the 2002 and 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. Now he had a chance to do what no one else had ever done before: compete in both Winter events.

But late last night, that dream came to an end. His coach, Inge Braten, accompanied by the team’s head coach Dave Wood, and Tom Holland, Cross-Country Canada’s high-performance director, met with him to break the bad news. McKeever will not be among Canada’s four skiers entered in Sunday’s 50km event, the final race of the Games.

The decision said Braten was made strictly on performance. Between them, Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov and George Grey have six Top-10 finishes at these Games.

“I have to be professional,” said Braten. “I have to use my four best men in an Olympics in Canada.”

He spoke a similar situation when he was coaching in his native Norway during the Lillehammer Games. One member of that powerhouse team was the fifth best skier in every discipline. And consequently he never got a chance to perform in front of his home crowd.

Still this choice was harder, Braten allowed. McKeever cried and so did he.

“That was really the hardest, the hardest ever,” he said. “I hope I don’t ever do it again.”

Braten even petitioned the FIS, the international skiing federation, to make an exception and allow Canada to have five entrants in the 50km. “I asked for it for human reasons, and [because] this is in Canada.” The federation refused, as Braten admits, he was almost certain they would.

But there is no way to put a positive spin on such a heartbreaking choice. McKeever’s own expectations that he would race, despite his status as an alternate on the team, were high. And they were fueled, in part, by Cross-Country Canada’s choice to pump the feel-good story. National and international media couldn’t get enough of it. There’s even an inspiring Visa TV commercial about McKeever with Morgan Freeman doing the voice-over.

Earlier in the week, there had been talk of giving McKeever a spot in the team sprint event. But that was scrubbed on performance grounds—Devon Kershaw eventually filled it, and he and Alex Harvey just missed the podium, placing fourth. However, Braten admits that wasn’t the only consideration. CTV had no plans to broadcast the sprint preliminaries, and it was doubtful McKeever—not a natural sprinter—and Harvey could have been among the top 30, and advance to the next, televised round.

“You have a lot of politics in Canada. I can’t understand the politics in sport in Canada,” said Braten.

When McKeever came out to meet the press today, just after the start of the women’s 30 km race, he was classy, but obviously crushed.

“I respect the decision, but I don’t have to be happy about it,” he said. “I understand it. Our boys are racing so fast, and they deserve everything they get.”

McKeever said he doesn’t expect, or even want, one of his teammates to step aside. He made the Olympic team on his own merits, and hoped to race for the same reason.

“The qualification in itself was a big victory. But it didn’t end up the way I wanted,” he said, pausing to wipe away some tears.

As of today, he is not sure if he will attend Sunday’s race and cheer on his teammates. His new focus is on his first Paralympic race, March 9, along with his sighted guide, and brother, Robin.

Four years from now in Sochi, he hopes to be back. And at least get another chance to fulfill his dream.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.