Curt Harnett took up cycling not as a competitive sport, but as a way to stay in shape during the ice hockey off-season. By 1982, however, he had decided to pursue cycling as a career and, one year later, he was representing Canada at the Pan American Games, finishing 4th in the sprint. The podium did not elude him at the 1984 Summer Olympics, as he captured silver behind Fredy Schmidtke of West Germany in the 1,000 metres time trial. He won his first major international title at the 1987 Pan American Games, in the 1,000m time trial, as well as a bronze medal in the sprint. He returned to the Olympics the following year, but placed 11th among 30 competitors in the 1,000m time trial and did not leave his opening heat in the sprint.
Harnett had placed 6th in the sprint at the 1986 Commonwealth Games, but earned silver at the 1990 edition, a feat that he would repeat in 1994. He also won his first World Championship medal, silver in the sprint, in 1990. Although he was 4th in the event the following year, he managed to capture bronze at the 1992 Summer Olympics, behind German Jens Fiedler and Australian Gary Neiwand. After failing to medal at the next two World Championships, he had arguably his most successful year in 1995. In addition to winning silver in the sprint at the World Championships, he became the first person to break the 10-second barrier for its final 200 metres with a time of 9.865 seconds, a record that lasted 11 years. His last major tournament was the 1996 Summer Olympics, where he won another bronze medal in the sprint, behind Fiedler and Marty Nothstein of the United States. Harnett retired from active competition after the Games, but attended the next two Summer Olympics as a commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is a member of the Northwestern Ontario Sports (2003), Canadian Sports (2005), and Canadian Olympic (2006) Halls of Fame.
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