When Kurt Browning was named Canada’s top athlete of 1990 the other day, some people wondered how the vote would have sat with Lionel Conacher, the old lion of Canadian sports the award was named for. Browning is the first figure skater to win the Conacher honor since its inception in 1932. Con was called the Big Train, a guy who did just about everything an athlete can do except figure skate. Hey, in his day, real men didn’t figure skate.
In the dark ages of 1950, a bunch of sports editors voted Lionel this country's athlete of the half-century. I knew him a little bit in those years just before his death in 1954 and I think he would have fainted, hearing about Kurt Browning winning his award.
This reveals something about the social climate of that other half-century and something about how sports have changed in this one. There weren’t many people around who gave public thought to figure skating back when the century was only half over. Oh, we went slightly daffy over Barbara Ann Scott after she won her Olympic gold in 1948 at St. Moritz, Switzerland, but she was a girl, and figure skating was for girls, right? If there was a guy around who actually skated in those funny high-laced boots, who had time for him?
But for somebody such as Lionel Conacher, it was a different story. Here was a man. The Big Train played all the tough sports and he was good at all of them. Good? He was damned nearly awesome. He scored three touchdowns in the 1921 Grey Cup game. Indeed, he was so good at football that the Americans imported him to play for Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1927. He played outfield for the Toronto Maple Leafs when they won the Little World Series in 1926. He delighted in the chance to go three rounds in an exhibition against Jack Dempsey. He played lacrosse and wrestled strong men when wrestling was not the televised comedy hour it has become. And in hockey, which was his third-best sport be-
No sport puts tougher demands on its performers than figure skating, especially on guys who can perform quadruple loops
cause he didn’t learn to skate until he was 16, he was an NHL all-star defenceman three times and played on two Stanley Cup winners (Chicago and Montreal). And tough? Say, Lionel carried something like 600 stitches—yes, 600. He had 150 in his face and head alone and his nose had a bend in it like a road detour.
But, as far as I know, he had no time for sports that weren’t rugged, and these days males who figure skate are still viewed more as dancers than athletes. This is a circumstance that truly bothers Kurt Browning. The other day writing in The Toronto Sun, columnist Steve Simmons recounted a luncheon conversation with Browning at the Royal Glenora Club in Edmonton, where 24-year-old Browning works on his ice routines.
“Everyone wants to know about all the gays in figure skating,” Simmons quotes the reigning world champion. “I know this will probably disappoint a lot of people, but almost all the male skaters in Canada I know are straight. I don’t think it’s any different in skating than in society, than anywhere else.”
In 1988, Browning exploded into sports fans’ consciousness in the world’s championships in Budapest. He completed a quadruple toe loop, a dazzling, twirling manoeuvre never before
achieved in competition. Fulfilling this promise, the personable young native of Caroline, Alta., won his first world’s title in Paris in 1989 and repeated last March in Halifax.
Obviously, Browning is a specialist, decades removed from the multi-sport era of Lionel Conacher. That’s the way it is with almost all of today’s superstars, an exception being the squat, muscled Bo Jackson, a power-hitting outfielder for the Kansas City Royals who follows up the baseball season by wrecking National Football League defences, carrying the ball from his halfback position with the Los Angeles Raiders.
This transition from generalist to specialist is a product of the cold fish eye of television— or, more precisely, the undreamed-of money generated by it. Television took sports into the living rooms of anybody who wanted it, and that in turn attracted panting advertisers to the video doors. Soon, the skyrocketing cost of television rights was making team owners and promoters rich, a circumstance that invited expansion of teams and seasons.
Before long, there were professional teams in all the heavily populated cities, and agents popped up continent-wide to represent the performers and extract vast sums from the television-rich owners. To accommodate the flood of new teams and to keep the tiny screens up to their athletic supporters in games, the seasons were lengthened. There was seldom time left for players to concentrate on more than one sport, much less the half-dozen that occupied Lionel Conacher. By 1990, the need to fill rosters was so great that guys were making $2 million a year for being good enough to avoid being hit on the head by fly balls.
Oldtime athletes could play games around the clock, moving from hockey to baseball to football with the seasons, partly because the demands on their conditioning weren’t stringent. Natural ability alone carried them along.
“We played ourselves into shape,” Frank Morris told me once, speaking of his six Grey Cup-winning seasons as a lineman with the Toronto Argonauts in the 1940s and the Edmonton Eskimos during the 1950s. Later, Morris added six more Grey Cups as the director of player development for the Eskimos during the 1970s and 1980s. “We’d arrive fat in training camp,” he recalled, “and by midseason, we’d be ready to go.”
It was that way in most sports. Ball players used to spend the long cold winters catching up on their beer drinking and, as John Lardner once wrote, “their appetites were as wide as their moustaches.” Hockey players spent their summers in as leisurely a fashion, arriving for fall training, in the phrase of an eminent afterdinner speaker, Jake Dunlap, “with bellies on ’em like tame bees.”
But now the long, long seasons in the big spectator sports demand year-round conditioning, and no sport puts tougher demands on its performers than figure skating, especially guys who can perform quadruple loops. Maybe in the dark old days, Conacher would have frowned on a skater’s eminence, but chances are that if he were around today, he would spare more than a passing glance for Kurt Browning.
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