A champion athlete lashes out at: THE BADGERS WHO ARE HANDCUFFING OUR AMATEUR ATHLETES
If Canada wins any Olympic gold medals next year, it will happen despite track officials who have cost us dearly with the kind of mismanagement described here
AT LOS ANGELES in 1932 a man named Duncan McNaughton jumped higher than anyone else in the world — and that was the last time a Canadian citizen won a gold medal in Olympic track and field. Now, more than thirty years and five Olympics later, Canadians are talking optimistically, even confidently, about our chances of winning not one but two, three and perhaps four gold medals in track and field next year at Tokyo.
I agree that not since McNaughton have
Olympic gold medals been more accessible to Canadians, and I think it is important to discover why. But I think it is even more important to examine the reasons for our long slump, which has understandably given the world the impression that whatever else Canadians may be, we are physically second-rate.
Canadian Olympic officials and other apologists fell into the habit of blaming Canada’s harsh weather and small population for our failures. They blushed, I hope, when Czechoslovakia with worse weather and fewer people captured medals; and when even smaller "underprivileged" countries like the Caribbean islands consistently produced one or two athletes who outran and outjumped Canadians.
They did not blame themselves, these gentlemen of the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada. Why would they? This governing body was founded with the highest ideals for fostering amateur athletics. The trouble has been that these ideals have seldom been carried out in
practice. I could fill the rest of this article with descriptions of the shameful conditions that have characterized Canadian track and field. I may be prejudiced, though — 1 was almost killed because of them.
It happened at a track meet in British Columbia, a meet which the A A U sanctioned in spite of lethal ignorance in its organization. Shot put and discus events were held simultaneously in overlapping throwing areas. As I walked out to pick up my shot (after setting a Canadian record) I was struck full in the face by a discus. I was lucky, though — I’m still alive, and 1 was blinded only temporarily.
I’ve seen pole vaulters forced to drop into pits of hard-packed sand from higher than twelve feet. No wonder we had no fifteen-foot vaulters — dropping from those heights was suicide. I remember runners at a major meet at the Canadian National Exhibition competing on a track full of holes, with a wire from the public address system stretched taut across it.
Officiating was always poor. Our officials ("badgers,” the athletes call them, referring to the gaudy credentials fastened to the blue blazers which are the uniform of these functionaries) invariably preferred to make decisions by flipping a coin rather than using their heads. Nobody ever bothered to calculate the number of athletes at a meet or to organize the equipment, ground facilities or time factor. You never knew when (or if) your event would begin — disastrous to your mental and physical warm-up. The last Canadian Age Class Championships called for forty races in one hour, something like cramming a thousand people on a bus.
Once I lost a Canadian record because the head official told me through an alcoholic haze that I had to forfeit my throw because I'd started to move in the throwing circle. I was too disgusted to bother explaining that to throw one must move. I took the throw anyway, and it beat the existing Canadian record, but he refused to count it because it was an "extra” throw. I don't mind the badgers working up their enthusiasm with a bottle, but I wish it didn't so often interfere with the meet, and the athletes. Bruce Kidd once told me about a badger who got very forceful about insisting he have a beer after he’d won a race. Bruce was sixteen at the time.
I've seen cheating on record forms, judges "witnessing" events they hadn't attended. Sometimes when there weren't enough officials present to ensure ratification of a record, fictitious names were signed. I once watched a man put the shot when there were no officials nearby. It was clearly a foul, but it became a Canadian record. Other pettier violations I've noticed have been treated as a matter of course — such as older athletes pacing younger ones to age-class records, and Bruce Kidd being handed a wet towel while running, during the British Empire trials last year. How could we expect the world to take us seriously when we didn't even take ourselves seriously enough to be honest?
The cause of our woeful track and field record was more than poor standards and conditions, though; it was economic too. An amateur is supposed to be one who does not compete for pay. But in Canada an amateur was one who must pay to compete. If he couldn't afford travel and training facilities, he stayed home. We had no program equivalent to the systems of paid national coaches in Great Britain and Europe, or the organized and affluent National Collegiate Athletic Association in the U. S. (The AAU’s function is just to govern the sport, make sure amateurs stay amateur, and enforce international standards.)
Where did the all-important money burden rest? Anyone who suggests schools and unicontinued on page 72
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Poor conditions, poor coaching, poor athletes, but the Legion is working to change the future
versifies will be disappointed, to say the least. John Minichiello, who coaches track at the University of British Columbia, says, “I couldn’t tell any promising track athlete to come to UBC. It just isn’t worth it when he can be so much better provided for in the States.” And there, with very few exceptions, is exactly where promising track athletes do go. (When it came to choosing between my home town’s UBC or an American university, I didn't hesitate. I went to the University of Oregon on a four-year scholarship, to an internationally known coach and one of the most comprehensive athletic programs on the continent.) UBC's athletic department brags about making do with one of the lowest budgets in North America. It’s something like fifty thousand dollars, compared to over a million dollars at some U. S. schools the same size. UBC’s combined track and crosscountry allotment was about twentythree thousand dollars last year, spent mostly on travel. The UBC athletic department claims a policy of “individual excellence and mass participation.” What excellence? If their track team ever met Oregon's they’d be beaten exactly 145-0.
Track and field clubs have been doing somewhat better than the universities, but lack of money kept them down too. Our poor conditions bred poor coaches and poor athletes, and people don't invest where there seems little hope of return. It was a vicious circle—money raises standards and standards raise money. We had neither.
But most of all, it seems to me, we were hobbled by a defensive selfsatisfaction with the status quo. We sneered at the American for wanting to win, and identified with the Englishman, whose pride in his bulldog stubbornness has often made for needless adherence to poor conditions and outdated methods. The British conception of an American athlete is a brainless automaton with no ideals, who wins because he happens to be blessed with magnificent muscles and supreme co-ordination.
I saw this illustrated several times this summer at the coaches' clinic I attended in Guelph, Ont. (though the clinic in general was excellent). There was only one American instructor, though several had been imported from England at high cost, and included a few top men, like Geoff Dyson.
American Phil Mulkey, an all-time decathlon great was severely criticized by a British expert during his hurdling demonstration for his “mediocre” style. Later the expert admitted privately that his crew hadn't spaced the hurdles correctly, making Mulkey’s task something like playing cricket without a bat.
But Canada is putting its dismal past record aside to concentrate on the future. Some of the credit for this must go to the government. A good
part of their physical fitness grant, under the direction of the National Fitness Council, is being spent on track and field.
And well it should be the government, for some of the greatest ambassadors Canada has ever sent abroad are people like Bruce Kidd and Bill Crothers, whose names adorn autograph books and press clippings all over the world. As Bruce himself aptly put it in an article he sent to the University of Toronto newspaper during the British Empire Games: “It may not be scientific or philosophical but somehow sport brings men together.”
The Canadian Legion is also altering the picture. A few years ago they started a Junior Olympic Training Plan—in B. C. last summer the thirteen-thousand-dollar program included more than twenty thousand children under sixteen, who competed in two hundred and forty track meets. Last year the Legion hired England’s national coach, Geoff Dyson, for a five-year stay to coach Canadian coaches. No better man could have been found on earth than the dynamic Dyson, a master at any level of coaching.
The Legion brought more than two hundred carefully selected people to Guelph this summer to learn from Dyson and other experts. I arrived slightly sceptical, for I’ve heard of similar programs degenerating into a big party, but the keenness I saw among the participants (generated largely by Dy-
son’s own magnetism) quickly dispelled my doubts. The clinic was taken seriously, and its students absorbed ¿ome of the best coaching I’ve ever seen, from early morning till late at night, for nine days.
One instructor there, John Disley (a former world-class steeplechaser), cautioned: “This clinic would be like working in a vacuum if it were not for the inspiration provided by Canada’s superstars—Kidd, Jerome, Crothers. Youth must know what it’s working toward.” Proof that there is no chance of a vacuum was provided at the International Games in Toronto last June. The meet drew seventeen thousand spectators, a figure which would have been beyond the wildest dreams of any meet promoter a few years ago. Even more impressive are the constant attacks this year on the record book by Canadians of all ages. Track and field forces are on the move.
Some of the old rot still lingers, however. I saw it at Perth during the British Empire Games last November. The badgers had good intentions, I suppose, but no understanding of the athletes or their needs. Typical was the attitude of the team manager, who slept while our three pole vaulters competed. When I asked him if he shouldn’t be at the track instead of in bed he said, “The boys don’t need me. There’s nothing I can do for them.”
The most serious result of the badgers’ attitude was the calamity of star
sprinter Harry Jerome, who suffered a ruptured thigh muscle which has kept him out of action ever since.
“I had been hoarse and feverish for two weeks,” Harry told me. “They got a guy who was supposed to check me. He didn’t even look at me, just gave me some pills. They were useless. After the race a doctor looked at me. He said 1 had tonsillitis.”
He should not have run, but one could hardly blame him for not withdrawing on his own. He was anxious to erase the label of “quitter” pinned on him by some unprincipled observers who covered the Rome Olympics in i960. The badgers did not aid his cause. They put pressure on him, by statements to the press not to “let Canada down.” Even the team manager released such quotes as “Harry Jerome is the greatest sprinter in history. He will certainly be a Games winner.”
The most telling public statement of all was in the press release handed out to explain Harry's return to Canada. “It was apparent before the final of that race that he was in physical trouble,” it said. Luckily for our image, a quick-thinking badger spotted the psychological slip, crossed out “final.” and scrawled in “finish” in its place!
Boozing badgers, defeatist athletes
Internationally respected Bill Bowerman, Harry’s (and my) coach at the University of Oregon, had this to say about whoever was responsible for his disaster: “Greedy! More interested in medals than an athlete’s health.” Oregon’s athletic department has since made an unwritten law that no track athlete be sponsored by other organizations, on threat of losing his grant-inaid. This is why I didn’t compete for Canada in the Pan American Games.
The subsequent chapters of Harry Jerome's tragic story didn’t get nearly the publicity his Perth defeat did. He had an expensive hospital bill, was in a cast for almost two months, and walked on crutches for many more months. He has brought himself along cautiously, running more and more every day, until in August he ran three 440-yard races, one in a respectable 50.5 seconds. (“Not bad for a guy on one leg,” said a man he beat.)
Yet, still limping, his recovery far from over, Harry is already finding the old pressure on to prove himself. At the Guelph coaches’ clinic he was demonstrating sprinting technique, along with England's Peter Radford, another great who shares the official world record for the 220 yards. Some of the student coaches, supposedly the leading track brains in Canada, accused Harry of slacking when he refused to risk his recovery by going all out and actually racing Radford.
I got the impression at Perth that the badgers were on a big vacation— days of sunbathing on Australian beaches and nights of boozing and partying. With such examples, the athletes could hardly be blamed for their defeatist attitude. Few had the training or ability to merit the trip at all. When I made this charge I was told, “These athletes are here for the experience if nothing else.” It was an expensive experience—almost
fifteen hundred dollars for each man.
The Canadian team settled in Perth more than two weeks before the actual Games—for “acclimatizing and final preparations,” I was told. 1 didn't find the climate noticeably different from Canada's, and any athlete who needed the “preparation” time shouldn’t have been there. It takes more than three weeks, even of what is termed final preparation, to show against world champions. The extra time gave the badgers a longer holiday to enjoy
themselves, but the nervous strain of living among rivals in a buzzing, overpopulated, ghetto-like barracks more than canceled any benefits to the athletes. (I lost eight pounds during my stay. )
The Canadians' performance was ample proof of this. Only Jerome made it past the quarterand semifinals in the sprints. Our miler ran 4.17 in his final, nearly a hundred yards behind the leader, and even this performance was better than those of
our half-milers. The steeplechase man’s best was thirty seconds off the Empire's hest. But our failure was predictable long before we reached Perth, in the “politics” of team selection. One Canadian athlete who didn't make it was Vic Reeve, who has run two 4.03 miles and ranks high in the two-mile with a time of 8.47. He was replaced by a steeplechaser who couldn't carry Vic's jock strap.
When I asked about this, the national chairman of track and field, who
managed the team in Perth, told me: “We chose on the athlete's chance of placing, not his intrinsic ability. Reeve, though he placed much higher in the world ranking, did not rank as well comparatively in the Empire, where there are many of the greatest milers. We thought van der Wal would have a better chance in the steeplechase.” I disagree with both his principle and his speculation. The better an athlete, the better he’ll perform. Who knows — Reeve might have won the mile. The winner ran 4.05.
Canada should eliminate both politics and the quotas which stipulate beforehand how many athletes will make a team. Standards, not numbers, should be set. Those who qualify should travel: those who don’t should not. If more athletes had been left at home, the AAU would have had some fifteen thousand dollars — enough to pay two national coaches for a year. I have great respect for men like Ken Twigg, the national chairman of track and field, for donating much out of his own pocket. But where is money like his going? To make a ball for free-loading badgers?
Here’s where the Canadian Legion is altering the picture. They were the first organization that humbly admitted Canada’s greenness — and sensibly imported the expert brains of Geoff Dyson to run the Guelph coaches’ clinic. It is boosts like this that will really eliminate the negative thinking that has characterized Canadian track and field. At last we are defining to ourselves the purpose of sport — not just big names and big performances with their by-products of medals and glory. We are starting to learn the joy of participating — at any age or skill level — and this mass participation is what will create more and better champions. ★