Road To The Olympic Games


Folklore of sport in Toronto is indeed rich

When it come to representing Toronto, athletes like Andre De Grasse, Toller Cranston and Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld have all made the city proud, writes CBC Sports host Scott Russell.

Andre De Grasse, Toller Cranston & Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld have all made the city proud

Clockwise from top: Andre De Grasse, Toller Cranston and Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld have all impacted the city of Toronto. (Canadian Press)

When I was a kid growing up in Toronto, I learned to love sports. 

The teams were everything and they unfailingly wore blue.

The Maple Leafs, the CFL Argonauts, and just as I was completing high school, the Blue Jays, who had only then entered baseball's major leagues.

But there was more to it than that. My father was teaching part-time at the University of Toronto and he would take me on week-end afternoons to the Varsity Blues football games and occasionally to Varsity Arena to see the hockey team play.

Both my mom and dad loved figure skating and when I was still a kid, we all became enthralled by the exploits of Toller Cranston, who was dramatically different than the rest of the skaters. 

Cranston was always an incredible performer but often ran up against the judges who hadn't caught up with his revolutionary approach to the sport. Although he won bronze medals at the world championships and the Olympics in the mid 1970's, we were often left shaking our heads that he didn't win more. We were convinced he was by far the best on the ice, and that the judges didn't understand.

Cranston was born in Hamilton, and called Kirkland Lake, Ont., home but he skated out of Toronto. He was coached by Ellen Burka, a holocaust survivor who had been a Dutch champion and whose own daughter Petra had won the world figure skating championships in Colorado Springs in 1965 and an Olympic medal in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria.

She too was from Toronto.

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In our household we were also fans of the Olympics and we watched in 1968 as the Canadian show jumping team won gold in Mexico City. The riders were Jim Elder, Jim Day and Tommy Gayford. All of those guys were from the Toronto area and I had seen them compete at the Royal Winter Fair down at the Canadian National Exhibition Coliseum because my school went on field trips there.

We loved the Olympics in our home.

So it was the other night, as I hosted the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour induction ceremony at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre that I thought to myself, Toronto really is a good city of sport.

There was the mayor, John Tory, himself a former commissioner of the Canadian Football League, extolling the virtues of sport and what it means to the community. He pointed out that the teams here are enjoying great success these days. The Leafs are finally headed for the playoffs, the Raptors are on a roll, and the Blue Jays have captured all of our imaginations.

Then the mayor stayed the course and handed out the awards to all 15 inductees. You could tell he was pleased as punch just to be there. On this night, he was just a fan and proud to be the mayor of Toronto.

The roll call was spectacular.

There was Chris Rudge, a builder who headed up the Canadian Olympic Committee during the Vancouver Games; Nerissa Pooran, an incredibly talented Special Olympian who excels in many sports as well as Paralympic medalists; Victoria Nolan of rowing and basketball's Adam Lancia. The national champion Varsity Blues women's volleyball team was honoured as was their coach Kristine Drakich.

As it turns out I grew up just across the street from Kristine and her brother Eddie in a Toronto suburb.

There was Archie Allison who has done so much at Variety Village in order to give people with disability a chance to play sport.  The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, (CIBC), was inducted because of their support for the landmark Pan Am and Parapan Am Games and partly responsible for the incredible sporting facility we were celebrating in.

The greats

Sport needs patrons.

Andre De Grasse, the great Olympic sprinter, was honoured and his biggest fan, his mother Beverley, was there to accept for him. The winner of back-to-back gold medals at the Olympics, gymnast Rosie Maclennan was inducted. She's a graduate student at the University of Toronto.

The late Jerry Tonello was enshrined for his lifetime achievement of leading Canada to wheelchair basketball glory at the Paralympics.  Much of the work he had done was here at the Canadian Institute of Sport, Ontario, where the national team is now based.

And then there were the legends.

Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld who won Olympic medals on the track, wrote a feminist sports column for the Globe and Mail, and was selected as Canada's female athlete of the first-half century, was at long last recognized.

Ellen Burka, the figure skating coach was celebrated. Her mark on the sport has been indelible. Burka worked with champions like Cranston, Elvis Stojko, and Patrick Chan. Her daughters Astra and Petra beamed as they represented their late mother.

Finally, Bobby Baun, the great Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman who played 17 seasons in the NHL and won four Stanley Cups with Toronto, came to the podium.

He walks haltingly now, but bow-legged as ever. 

His illustrious career is still vivid in my memory. 

Once a year I got to go to a Leafs game with my friend Ian Davey whose dad, Senator Keith Davey, greatly admired Bobby Baun. 

Baun was nicknamed "Boomer" and while diminutive, was one of the hardest and cleanest body checkers in the game. He was also courageous and once, during a playoff game, scored an overtime winner on a fractured ankle to keep the Leafs' Stanley Cup hopes alive.

Seeing Baun stride slowly to the stage and be honoured along with his stellar colleagues to a thunderous ovation was proof positive that the folklore of sport in Toronto is indeed rich.

"I'm just a little guy who walks with two canes but in my day I could hit you," Baun winked.  "All I can say is this: you can do whatever you dream of…play sports or go to school. You just have to believe in yourself."

I loved being there on that night.

I grew up in Toronto as a fan of sport and I knew every one of the stories that was told at the ceremony. 

They were the stuff of legend…like familiar fables.

It was an affirmation for me that Toronto, my hometown, really is a fantastic city of sport, and all kinds of it.

In my day they used to call our city, "Toronto the Good."

On this occasion I was reminded that when it comes to sport, this city isn't just good … it's great.

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