Canada 150

Canadian way: Our greatest gift to sport

Canada's most significant contribution to sport may not be any game invented, superstar personality, gold medal, or championship won, according to CBC Sports host Scott Russell. In fact, it could be that this nation gathers people together instead of driving them apart.

It should be something that gathers people together instead of driving them apart

Hockey is Canada's biggest way of bringing people together. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer and sprinter Harry Jerome. We also looked back at the Richard Riot, auto racing's Villeneuve family, and explored Babe Ruth's Canadian origins.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.

In searching for the most significant contributions to sport over the course of 150 years of Canadian nationhood, it's easy to be mightily impressed.

Ice hockey is king here. Canada has produced its greatest players and teams. Curling, while it was originally carved out of craggy rocks on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig, was nurtured in Prairie soil and has blossomed into the national pastime. 

Canada gave the canoe to the Olympics. A Canadian invented basketball and the indigenous game of lacrosse stands the test of time.

But there are other tangible gifts to the international sporting landscape over the course of history. It was a Canadian, Dr. Frank Hayden, who founded the Special Olympics which promote physical activity and athletic endeavour for people with emotional and intellectual challenges. 

Manitobans conceived of the sport of wheelchair rugby, originally known as "murderball," an intense and thrilling game that has become a centrepiece of the para-sport movement.

But there is something less obvious, perhaps deeper, and arguably more revealing of a larger Canadian contribution to the world-wide sporting narrative.

Approach to competition

It became an undercurrent when encountering a group of Canadian Paralympic hopefuls at a recent summit in Calgary. For each of these athletes, the terms of reference when speaking about Canada had less to do with winning championships than with fully appreciating an approach to competition.

"When you wear the Canadian team jacket at Paralympics you stand a little straighter and puff out your chest with pride," reckoned 20-year-old alpine skier Mac Marcoux of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. "The feeling can be overwhelming."

Similarly, Dominic Larocque, a military veteran wounded in Afghanistan who has gone onto win a world championship with the Canadian para-ice hockey team, frames his Canadian identity with something more than a gold-medal victory.

"The most important thing in the army or in sport is to be an ambassador of Canada," he said. "It is also very important to wear the Maple Leaf with honour."

This sense of dignity, almost reverence, with regard to being a member of the Canadian sports story, has a solid foundation. Canada and Canadians have developed a sparkling, global, reputation for a consistently honourable vision of sport.

"I think that we, as Canadians, bring a principled approach to sport," said Olympic gold medallist Mark Tewksbury who has long fought for inclusion at the Olympic level and is now a board member with the Canadian Olympic Committee.

"Our sport system is not perfect, but we take fair, clean, ethical sport very seriously. If you look at the leading voices in the world on these issues – Beckie Scott, Richard McLaren, Dick Pound — they are all Canadian."

For Paralympic alpine skier Mac Marcoux, right, his approach to competition is as important as winning. (Dmitry Lovetsky/The Canadian Press)

Beyond winning

It's true. Canada stands for something beyond winning and losing and the world knows it. 

This springs from the Ben Johnson scandal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul where a Canadian sprinter's positive doping test led to a national outrage known as the Dubin Inquiry in which the country publicly and emphatically took the high road on drugs in sport in perpetuity.

"As athletes in the Olympic village in 1988 we were devastated by Ben Johnson's positive test and all that it meant for sport," reflected Tricia Smith, a rower who is the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

"It was the first and only time I have ever been embarrassed to be Canadian. We turned our jackets inside out. It was so profound because in our souls, what happened did not reflect the foundations upon which we had built our careers and, importantly, who we truly believed we were."

It was at the Dubin Inquiry where Ben Johnson admitted he used steroids at the 1998 Olympics. (Hans Deryk/The Canadian Press)

Indeed, from that moment on, Canada took the lead in the fight for clean sport. There was the national inquiry, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport came into being, the World Anti-Doping Agency, (WADA), found a home in Canada. Recently, Richard Pound and Dr. Richard McLaren have been front and centre in the exposure of systematic doping in Russian sport.

It is obvious that fairness has become the trademark Canadian way.

"There still exists a very pure and values based approach to sport here that is being lost in many parts of the world to politics and corruption," said Scott, the Olympic champion cross-country skier who now chairs WADA's Athlete Committee.

"I feel that translates as the inherent values and integrity that Canadians approach sport with. Canadians still believe in the power of sport to contribute to the greater good in society, and still believe it is worth protecting and for that I am grateful."

This "Canadian" sporting spirit is revealed beyond the war against doping. Because the country has grown as a mosaic, or confluence of several cultures, there has always been diversity reflected in our champions. Here, people of every race, faith, gender, orientation and circumstance have the opportunity to compete at sport and to succeed.

The Vancouver Games left a lasting impact on the Olympic movement. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

'Cool' to be Canadian

This has not gone unnoticed. In fact, at several editions of the Olympics, observers from countless other nations have considered it "cool" to be Canadian implying an admiration for the way our athletes conduct themselves. Beyond that, the Calgary 1988 Games and those held in Vancouver in 2010, are universally regarded as "best in class" for their welcoming and spectacular nature.

"In addition to the sports we have invented and popularized, Canadians have been generous, creative hosts of the Olympics and other international games and championships, far more than our small population would suggest," said Dr. Bruce Kidd, a Commonwealth Games champion as a distance runner and academic at the University of Toronto who has worked tirelessly to eradicate sexism and racism in sporting communities around the world.

"It would suggest that we are leading contributors to a more ethical, inclusive approach to sport. In recent years, Canadians have been at the forefront of the struggle against doping and gender-based violence, and exemplars of gender equity, athletes' rights and sport for development and peace."

Canada has introduced the world to a series of sports which have become wildly popular. It has developed champions in a wide variety of Olympic disciplines, from track and field to figure skating.

While that is all well and good, the lasting legacy of the Canadian sporting experience will undoubtedly be the inclusive nature of how we approach every field of play. 

Overwhelmingly, the path we seem to take is one in which everyone is welcome.

"With such a diverse nation perhaps nothing quite brings Canadians together like a gold-medal hockey game," reasoned four-time Olympic champion Hayley Wickenheiser, who now sits on the IOC Athlete's Commission.

"It's sport that seems to sew our differences together. It's something that we collectively feel proud of and which shows the world that we're 'Canadian, eh.'"

In the end, the country's most significant contribution to sport may not be any game invented, superstar personality, gold medal, or championship won.

Instead, it might be something as subtle as a Canadian way of presenting ourselves.

Perhaps our greatest gift is a belief that sport should be something that gathers people together instead of driving them apart.


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