Why a former Olympian is starving himself to get Justin Trudeau's attention

Former Olympic and World Cup soccer player Paul James says he's starving himself to get the prime minister to pay attention to the stigma that exists with addiction and mental illness, which has plagued him for the better part of the last 20 years as a crack addict.

Former soccer star Paul James is on a hunger strike to draw awareness to stigma surrounding drug addiction

Canadian national soccer team players Paul James (left) and Randy Samuel celebrate the team's 2-1 win over Honduras in St. John's in 1985. The win helped propel the Canadians to the World Cup in 1986. (Michael Creagan/Canadian Press)

A former Olympic and World Cup soccer star has recorded a passionate plea to Justin Trudeau, saying he will starve himself until the government recognizes the stigma that exists around drug addiction — something that has plagued him for the better part of 20 years as a crack addict.

Paul James, 53, played for Canada at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1986 FIFA World Cup — the only time Canada reached the tournament. He's a member of the Canadian soccer Hall of Fame and has had a career as a media commentator.

Today, he says despite what sounds like a successful life — he is penniless, homeless and has no social status.

His hunger strike isn't about money or fame, it's about bringing attention to people with drug addictions and giving them the respect and dignity they deserve.

1984 Canada Olympic team, Paul James is seen on far right. The team went on to place fifth. (Canada Soccer/Flickr)

"I need to bring what's invisible to people, visible," he told CBC Toronto.

James gets choked up when he talks about his situation, saying there's no level of apology that could be enough to forget how he was treated by the judicial system — adding he never wants others to go through the same treatment.

Former soccer star Paul James on hunger strike

CBC News Toronto

4 years ago
Former soccer star Paul James speaks to CBC Toronto's anchor Dwight Drummond about his hunger strike to draw awareness to the stigma around drug addiction. 4:49

From Olympian to functioning addict

The Olympian, born in Wales, came to Canada in 1980 and was hired as a coach at York University in 2003. He says within six years, he helped the school win provincial and national titles — something the York Lions had never done before.

At that point he was already using crack cocaine — although he says he functioned well.

Paul James, centre, in action during the World Cup football match between France and Canada on June 1, 1986 in Leon, Mexico. It is the only time Canada has made it to the World Cup. (Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images)

That's until he confided in his colleagues.

"I told them I haven't been well for some time — they look at the sky they see blue, and I see grey." He says he was told to go away for three weeks to get better, but instead asked for three months of leave.

When I look at the sky they see blue, and I see grey.- Paul James

He entered rehab, but when he returned to work he was told he had been removed as coach.

He says he was was forced to resign in 2009 as a result of what he calls discrimination and harassment by York.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, a York University spokesperson confirms James resigned in 2009 and says the university "has policies and procedures to support employees who require accommodation in the workplace, including an Employee Well Being Office."

Discrimination suit

In 2012, James filed an application with the Human Rights Tribunal. According to court documents, his discrimination claim was dismissed because he failed to complete his application within the required one-year time limit. He blames this on having lost his job and income, which made him spiral deeper into depression.  

An appeal was rejected.

Paul James published an e-book about his substance abuse problems in 2012.

The filing says James had suffered from crack cocaine addiction and depression since "at least 2000," three years prior to being hired by York. The document adds there was no evidence of his problem being disclosed to his employers.

The filing goes on to say that he lost his savings, became homeless and was arrested twice.

'He led by example'

Former colleagues who played with James were in disbelief when they heard what happened to their friend.

"I was absolutely floored," said Peyvand Mossavat, who was a teammate of James's and now calls him a mentor. "He was hard-working and disciplined — he led by example."

Mossavat is now a university soccer coach at University of Ontario Institute of Technology and recently dedicated his coach of the year award to James. He says James's story needs to be heard to help people recognize when someone is calling for help — something he wishes James's employers had acknowledged.

Prevention is key

Mossavat says teaching people how to recognize signs of mental illness needs to start at a young age.

Paul James and Randy Samuel celebrate after winning against Honduras in 1985. The team went on to play at the World Cup in 1986 - something that hasn't been done since. (Canada Soccer/Flickr)

"You blame a stressful environment that performance brings — whether you're a coach or a player at the highest level — you're only as good as your last game," he said.

That's something performance coach and sports psychologist, Dr. Beth McCharles, agrees with.

In her practice, she sees that "anxiety is rampant" and "there is an enormous fear of failure in youth." McCharles was once a coach for the U of T soccer team and sometimes coached against James.

There is an enormous fear of failure in youth sport.- Dr. Beth McCharles

She adds there needs to be a better support system for athletes and coaches — including prevention, and creating balance.

Despite being opponents on the field, James was a passionate coach and the way he's bringing awareness to the issue is incredibly brave, McCharles says.

Economic burden of mental illness: $51M a year

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem. The economic burden of mental illness is estimated at $51-million a year.

"We need people to come forward, but how can they if there's so much fear," said James, adding it's because drug addiction by nature of illegal substance use is seen as a criminal matter, not a human matter.

He says he's applied to more than 100 jobs, but has been rejected each time.

"They have your resume, and they can Google you," he says. "It's devastating for people like me."

James started his hunger strike on Jan. 25. He says he's in it for the long haul or until the government looks at his situation and commits to change, so that others like him are treated with fairness and given the support they need.