CBC Sports

Amateur sportsQuebec's passion for sport stands out

Posted: Friday, November 4, 2011 | 09:11 AM

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Cross-country skiing world champion Alex Harvey, who hails from Mont St. Anne, is one of many Quebec athletes to feel the love from his home province. (Philippe Montigny/Agence Zoom/Getty Images) Cross-country skiing world champion Alex Harvey, who hails from Mont St. Anne, is one of many Quebec athletes to feel the love from his home province. (Philippe Montigny/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

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If you ever start to wonder about the lack of attention Canadian high performance sport receives in between Olympics, do yourself a favour: connect with Quebec.

On the way to a press conference where cross-country skier Alex Harvey was to be introduced as the spokesman for Operation Red Nose, the anti-drunk-driving campaign, I saw plenty of billboards for winter sport stars like Alexandre Bilodeau and Joannie Rochette.

The Olympics in Vancouver are long gone, but in Quebec the local heroes still resonate in a huge way.
If you ever start to wonder about the lack of attention Canadian high performance sport receives in between Olympics, do yourself a favour: connect with Quebec.

Last weekend's World Cup short track speed skating event in Chicoutimi was a blast, and the Georges Vezina Centre which houses the Marc Gagnon Arena was jammed to the rafters. The delirious fans were on their feet as Marianne St. Gelais, Charles Hamelin, Louis Jean and the rest of the Canadian speedsters dominated all challengers by winning nine medals.

They were positively swooning in the Saguenay.

The scene was still fresh when I stepped off the plane at the Jean Lesage Airport in La Vielle Capitale midweek on my way to interview Alex Harvey, the world champion cross-country skier who hails from near Mont St. Anne.

On the way to a press conference where Harvey was to be introduced as the spokesman for Operation Red Nose, the anti-drunk-driving campaign, I saw plenty of billboards for winter sport stars like Alexandre Bilodeau and Joannie Rochette.

The Olympics in Vancouver are long gone, but in Quebec the local heroes still resonate in a huge way.

Harvey feels the love

At the press conference, hundreds gathered and television cameras were in abundance as the curtain opened to reveal the 23-year-old Harvey as the star of the 28th edition of the holiday-season safe-driving campaign, which prevents hundreds of accidents and directs about $1.3 million annually to non-profit, amateur sports clubs, mostly in the Quebec.

Harvey, a Laval University law student, had to schedule his appearance at the launch early because he's leaving for the World Cup season in Europe and won't return until late March.  

It didn't matter.

His fans, including the Government of Quebec, the Quebec City Police, Labatt Breweries and Desjardins Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the country, were beaming to have him as the face of the massive community effort they sponsor.

Jean-Marie De Koninck founded Operation Red Nose. He's a mathematics professor and the swim coach at Laval. The whole thing started when De Koninck became aware that 50 per cent of traffic fatalities in Quebec involved the misuse of alcohol. He rounded up the 25 members of his swim team and offered free rides, without passing judgment, to revelers who decided not to get behind the wheel while impaired in the Quebec City area.

De Koninck believes that Harvey, the cross-country ski champion, is the perfect messenger for Operation Red Nose.

"As a place it's not too big and not too small. The people in Quebec see a good champion and they feel they may know him or her," De Koninck says. "And because they do they are willing to support them. It's not a scientific explanation but a bit of a gut feeling."

Maybe that's the key.

Quebec seems to have this gut feeling regarding their stars of sport. They tend to be valued as homegrown champions who may also be neighbours and, therefore, the tug on the heartstrings of the people is strong.

Patriotism on display

Alex's father, Pierre Harvey, was a star in his own right at both the summer and winter Olympics as a cyclist and a cross-country skier. The elder Harvey is the only Canadian to have competed in both the winter and summer Games in the same year. He did that in 1984 at Sarajevo and Los Angeles. Harvey is also the first Canadian to have won a World Cup cross-country ski race and captured the famed Holmenkollen ski festival in Norway in 1988.

He remains one of the most revered sports personalities in the history of the province.

"We're a small group in Quebec," Pierre Harvey says while striding across the running track that surrounds the historic Plains of Abraham. "When one of us does well the whole place goes crazy and the people are so proud. We're kind of like the Italian fans of sport in that way."

"Passionate" would be a good way to describe the connection that many people in Quebec have with sport. That intense affection has always been an overwhelming trademark of the supporters of the famed Montreal Canadiens. It's an emotional investment that has patriotism and pride of place all rolled into one.

In Quebec there is seemingly never any apology for supporting athletes because they are Canadians but also because they learned to be great on the playing surfaces of the La Belle Province. Hometown hero status is another form of adulation that many great athletes from here enjoy.

On the way back to the airport we drove a little out of our way to Mont Belair and took some pictures of Alex Harvey as he charged up the mountain while grinding out interval training on roller skis.

He's a world champion and something like a rock star in Europe. But for a moment Harvey interrupted his workout as a woman with a barking dog came over to say hello and wish him well in the coming season. She might as well have been chatting with the kid who lives next door.

It's always good to get a fix of Quebec and be amongst people who generally care about the power of sport.

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