Say what you want about Ottawa, it makes a damn good athletic supporter

Allan Fotheringham July 24 1978

Say what you want about Ottawa, it makes a damn good athletic supporter

Allan Fotheringham July 24 1978

Say what you want about Ottawa, it makes a damn good athletic supporter

Allan Fotheringham

Edmonton is not a sophisticated town. Wealth it has. Rough boots it has. A subway it now has. Tit-’n-bum journalism it now has, thanks to a transplanted version of The Toronto Sun. Polish it ain’t got. It will, nevertheless, be the locale next month for one of the most sophisticated decisions forced on the Canadian public. When all those strong men in short pants finish their sweaty endeavors at the Commonwealth Games in early August, the heretofore meandering mind of the Canadian citizen is going to have to decide just how much he, she or it (now that the three sexes have become officially sanctioned) care about this country’s athletic thermometer. Does it bother your angina whether or not we finish down the track to Albania, Bulgaria, Ruritania and Transylvania? In short, does the plight of the jocks disturb your jockey shorts? How important does Canada, the home of the inferiority complex, feel it is to rank high on the international scoreboard? For a rough frontier country barely a century old, is there a macho need to see our muscles up there in lights? The question will come into focus in Edmonton because, for the first time since Hamilton in 1930, when these Commonwealth tussles began, Canada should finish on top over England and Australia in the nationalistic totting up of points and medals. The question: do we want to surge on to the next plateau (not all that far away) of computer-picked athletic prodigies, the “talent identification program,” special diets and hermetically sealed athletes—a thinly disguised stud farm concept?

One of the prevailing myths in this diffident land, perpetuated by the moaning of sportswriters, is that Canada is in lousy shape on the international sports map. It’s not. In fact, it’s in shockingly good shape over-all. It’s just that Canadians don’t like to concede or acknowledge it. They’d prefer to ignore it.

At the Montreal Olympics two years ago, Canada finished 11th over-all. The state-produced automatons of Eastern Europe of course won four of the six top positions but only three non-Communist countries—the U.S. with 217 million residents, West Germany with 62 million and Japan with 113 million—beat out Canada. We now surpass Britain and France, with populations of 56 and 53 million, and the vaunted Cubans. Not to mention Czechoslovakia, all the Scandinavian countries and most of the world. That’s

not bad for this callow country.

It is one of the more closely held secrets of our time that Canada has world status in a number of sports. In swimming, the second most important sport on the Olympic calendar, we are now no worse than third. We have two of the best shooters in the world, we are of world rank in archery. Sailing? Several of the best in the world. Wrestling and the lighter divisions in weight lifting—the same. Our men’s basketball team was fourth in the

world at Montreal.

What has gone largely unnoticed is that the Canadian government is already halfway to the East German model of athletes who compete for the glory of the state. Karen Kelsall is a 15-year-old blonde with the build of a willow whip, a gymnastic prodigy from a Vancouver suburb whom the sports brass thinks has the potential of a Nadia Comaneci. So Ottawa is supplying $5,965 so she can live and train in Oregon. With travel allowances, the 15year-old who is taken away from home in hopes she can win future medals for Canada will receive over $10,000 from the state. It is watered-down East German soup, but it is East German soup nonetheless.

Canada, in fact, is the easy rider of international sport, piggybacking off coaching talent from abroad. Who coached Canada at Montreal? Head track coach Lynn Davies was lured from Wales. Sprint coach Gerard Mach was hired from Poland. Derek Boosey came from England. Weights coach Jean-Paul Baert was imported from France. Tudor Bompa came from Romania to coach rowing, assisted by Kris Korzeniowski from Poland. Basketball? Jack Donohue, Steve Konchalski and

Brian Heaney from New York.

The two cycling coaches were from Britain, the manager from Holland. Fencing? From Romania. Women’s volleyball? Korea. Handball? Morocco. Water polo? Hungary. Swimming? Australia, England and Scotland. In all 27 professional coaches smuggled in from abroad to do what we can’t do ourselves.

Ottawa’s quiet decision to get into statesupported jockdom came in 1972 with Health Minister John Munro, was accelerated by Marc Lalonde in that post and we now have our own czarina of sport, the statuesque and ambitious Iona Campagnolo who hopes to ride her portfolio of fitness and amateur sport right into the prime minister’s chair. In 1970 Ottawa spent $5 million to subsidize sport. This year the budget is $30 million. The results show. In the 1972 Olympics, Canada was ranked 21st; in Montreal, 11th. Ottawa now mails cheques to any Canadian athlete who ranks in the top 16 in the world. Going into the 1972 Olympics, there were only 40 Canadians at that level. By 1976, there were 137. The highest paid “amateur” in Canada is Graham Smith, the Edmonton breaststroker. The extent of the government umbilical cord can be seen by the fact that a year before Montreal, Bruce Kidd, the radicalized former distance star, suggested that Canadian Olympic athletes go on strike since they were being used by the state for political purposes. When 60 per cent of the athletes supported him, Ottawa upped the ante and the cheques increased.

A functionary in the Campagnolo camp talks of the next possible step: the selection of “good stock,” biologically selected, and often in need of being taken away from “harmful influences” which sometimes include parents. Professor Eric Banister of Simon Fraser University has done pioneering work that would enable experts to choose children for various fields of athletic excellence. He draws a rather chilling picture of a world in which top athletes might be bred like prize horses.

Valeri Borsov, Russian double-sprint champion at the 1972 Olympics, was chosen from prospects by a computer, which predicted his performance to within three lOOths of a second. The 20-year-old star of the Russian basketball team, sevenfoot-four-inch Vladimir Tkachenko, was isolated for training at 12. We’ve found 15year-old Kelsall. Edmonton is the turning point. We can do it. Do we want to?