No, I’m thinking about the kind of sport that should flourish in our own backyards. It’s that variety of sport that has its roots in the arenas and tracks around the corner. The stuff of playground dreams that can and should lead to excellence on the national and international stage.
Perhaps it’s because we haven’t yet decided in this country whether or not we value the concept of athletic endeavour or if Canada is indeed, a sporting nation.
Sport's underlying power
I got to thinking about this as I ran with 30,000 others from Toronto’s city hall in the CIBC Run for the Cure over the weekend. I was told before the gun went off that in 55 cities and towns all over the country some 170,000 runners would take part in five-kilometre and one-kilometre runs and would raise millions of dollars in the fight against breast cancer. It was a simple act, an almost instinctual one, one which would lead to a very positive result.
Sport, it struck me, has the power to change things.
The same kind of thoughts sprang to mind as I read of the Vancouver Olympic organizers banning the charitable group Right to Play from the athlete’s village at the 2010 Games because of a sponsorship conflict. It seems to me this is a glaring example of the triumph of sport as a commercial entity but an abject failure to recognize that it has a more important intrinsic value. Organizations like Right to Play provide sport to a wider society for elemental and essential reasons. The act of engaging in sport and play fosters a sense of well being that all people deserve.
This is what we have to come to grips with in Canada. Sport needs a place in the national mindset.
The notion of sport carving out a spot in the Canadian consciousness was driven home to me at a forum put on by AthletesCAN. The event invited mainstream politicians to outline their platforms for sport in front of an audience of discerning Olympians, Paralympians and national team athletes.
At issue on the election table
With the exception of the Bloc Quebecois, all parties were represented and the Secretary of State for Sport, Helena Guergis, was also in attendance. It was the first time in anyone’s recollection that sport was discussed in the context of being an election issue.
“I’m encouraged that it’s a least becoming a part of the national debate,” said Dr. Bruce Kidd. Kidd is an Olympian who now assumes duties as the Dean of the Faculty of Physical Education at the University of Toronto. His doggedly determined efforts have led to the construction of the new Varsity Stadium in Toronto, which includes one of the few state-of-the-art track facilities in Canada’s most-populated city.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling and facilities are closing in this country,” Kidd lamented. “To hear a commitment to building new infrastructure is at least heartening.”
Indeed, all parties were openly in favour of committing millions of dollars to building arenas, gymnasiums, swimming pools and running tracks. They made philosophical and high-minded statements about the power of sport to inspire citizens, move a nation and provide mentors. The Secretary of State also noted that the current government already has a hosting policy backing the bid for the 2015 Pan American Games to be staged in Ontario’s “Golden Horseshoe” as well as support for the proposed World University Games in Edmonton.
But as I sat and listened to the politicians and their responses to direct questions from the athletes, I wondered at the sincerity of it all and if anyone was really willing to fight for a place at the table where big decisions are made.
Benoit Huot, the Paralympian who has recently returned from Beijing with four swimming medals, asked whether or not each of the parties favoured the creation of a full Ministry of Sport with an accompanying cabinet minister who has the power to command attention at the time policy is considered.
Only Cape Breton Liberal, Rodger Cuzner, said yes. The others reverted to more obscure pronouncements surrounding the notion that sport and fitness was something to be invested in so that healthcare costs are reduced as a result of Canadians becoming more active. The Secretary of State hedged her bets, saying that a full minister of sport was something to be pondered but that governments should not be overzealous on this matter in a time of economic uncertainty.
It all smacked of hesitation and a lack of commitment.
'Political will needed'
Alex Baumann, the double Olympic gold medallist and the man who heads up Canada’s summer high performance program, Road to Excellence, put it best. “The political will to support high performance sport needs to be there,” Baumann said. “A dedicated sport minister gets you to the cabinet table with a chance to get legislation through. It brings profile and recognizes that sport is a worthwhile activity.”
This was the one thing that all in attendance got out of the forum. Sport in this country needs a focal point. Sport needs a defender, a voice that can be heard above the din when people with power consider what is truly important to Canadians.
“I wanted to hear a plan,” Alexandra Orlando the Olympian and rhythmic gymnast shook her head. “We need the passion and to be able to change the culture. We need to make Canada into a sporting culture. We are a rich nation we can afford it.”
Indeed we can. Canadians too often jump on the bandwagon to celebrate sport when our young people excel on the international stage. We also are willing to flop in front of TV sets by the millions to watch everything from NHL to NASCAR.
The question is, are we willing to make sport matter for what it brings to the country? It goes beyond survival. It speaks to a sense of health and well being and providing shining examples. Those examples become role models - the best of our youth who win medals and give Canadians a measure of pride in the potential of our citizenry.
I think we had it at one time in our history. Back around the centennial, Roland Michener was the Governor General who dined out on his reputation as a sportsman. He got Canadians fired up about physical activity and it was during his tenure that this country secured the right to host its first Olympics in Montreal.
Then there was the Minster of Sport and Fitness, Otto Jelinek. A world champion figure skater, Jelinek presided over the lead up to the Calgary Olympics and the successful growth of our winter sport system based in the Stampede City. One might conclude that it was at that time that Canada solidified its reputation as a nation that loved sport.
'Get to the dinner table'
Now it’s time to recommit. With the Vancouver 2010 Olympics on the horizon, arguably the largest and most important event to be staged in Canada’s evolving history, maybe it’s time that any prospective government make sport a priority and empower a minister willing to trumpet the cause.
“A sport minister means we get to the dinner table,” said Perdita Felicien. She’s the one-time world champion hurdler who because of a lack of appropriate facilities trains in Illinois. “Once we get to the table, sport can get its fair share of the helping.”
It’s true. There is all of this talk and all of this willingness to celebrate the champions who emerge in our midst without doing a great deal of planning or preparation.
Let’s get to the table and make sport part of the generous feast that all Canadians can come to relish and enjoy.
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