The much-anticipated and controversial Tokyo Olympics finally gets underway today with the opening ceremony, a year later than scheduled due to COVID-19. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing an excerpt from the autobiography of one of Canada’s most celebrated athletes and Olympic commentators, Bruce Kidd. The former Olympic athlete has been a lifelong advocate of human rights and has worked with local, national, and international bodies to advance opportunities for athletes. A Runner’s Journey, coming to a bookstore near you this September, charts the Canadian sporting legend’s remarkable journey of joy, discovery, and activism.
Excerpt from Chapter 16: Critical Support for the Olympics
Fighting for Sport
The great tragedy of the Montreal Olympics was that, with so little consultation and advance planning, we had little time to put comprehensive, sustaining sports development in place, let alone properly prepare an Olympic Team that would do Canada proud. In 1970, most cities in Canada lacked the basic facilities for the Olympic sports. There was not a single indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool or ten-metre diving tower between Montreal and Winnipeg. The best Toronto swimmers and divers left town to train. Sport Quebec and Sport Canada were just being created.
Nevertheless, the basics of the “Canadian sports system” we know today were hurriedly put in place during the build up to the Games. Between 1970 and 1976, the federal government increased the budget for high-performance sport five times. Many provinces followed suit. It was frantic catch-up. There were constant studies, pilot projects, meetings, and debates. After the retirement of Avery Brundage in 1972, the International Olympic Committee put an end to strict amateurism, permitting athletes to receive living stipends and an unlimited amount of expenses. More countries were investing in sports science and specialized coaching. These changes stimulated another big step towards full-time training.
Our knowledge was enhanced by the expanded internationalism that the Olympics encouraged. The 1970s brought a thaw in the Cold War, and Canada signed cultural exchanges with the socialist countries. Many of us travelled to the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and Cuba to see their sports systems first-hand, while representatives of those countries came to see the Montreal preparations. One of these was Klaus Huhn, sports editor of Neues Deutschland, the official newspaper of the ruling Socialist Unity Party in the GDR. Klaus and I immediately hit it off when he told me that as an eight-year-old watching the final of the 100 metres during the 1936 Olympics, he could not understand why Jesse Owens and the other sprinters failed to run around the entire track!
In 1946, at 18, Klaus became Neues Deutschland’s sports editor. He had just two qualifications; as the son of prominent communists, he could be trusted, and he had a bicycle to get around the devastated city of Berlin to report on events. He quickly turned the opportunity into a position of influence. In the early years of GDR sports, when the international federations did not recognize the GDR but the European sportswriters’ association did, Klaus was often the only one who could get a visa to cover international events. He used that to agitate for the GDR’s inclusion.
It was the epitome of the Olympic relationships envisioned by Coubertin, an acceptance of difference but respect through a shared love of sports. Klaus was an uncompromising communist. He once introduced me to an audience at Humboldt University as “a mere social democrat.” He was a proud defender of what the fledgling GDR had achieved between the rock of western capitalism and the hard place of Soviet control. We argued about whether those circumstances justified the harsh treatment of internal critics. We argued about doping. Klaus never denied that GDR athletes used steroids, countering that as long as western athletes were using them and the international federations
turned a blind eye, the GDR would ensure that its athletes had a fair chance. Despite these differences, we remained friends until his death in 2017.
I took my students every year to Montreal to see the developments and to interview insiders and outsiders. To my great surprise, Mayor Drapeau rolled out the red carpet. When I began questioning him about his autocratic approach to the Games, he walked across the room, put his arms around me, and said, “Bruce, Bruce, we want the same thing. Why do we disagree?” It was completely disarming. I immediately understood how he won over the IOC. I came to see him as the devil in the morality play, the villain everyone reluctantly admires.
While my friends on the left continued to savage the Olympics, I threw myself into improving facilities and opportunities for Canadian athletes to compete in Montreal.
One of my most cherished proposals was to create an official “popular” marathon as part of the Games. The idea was to give the thousands of spectators who were active sports enthusiasts a chance for Olympic participation, and to create a “sport for all” component of the Games. It came from Hal Higdon, a distinguished marathoner, writer, and member of the University of Chicago Track Club. While the organizing committee had its hands full just preparing for the already approved events, we thought we had the ear of Simon St. Pierre, an executive vice president of the organizing committee until he was tragically killed in a horse riding accident in 1975. The marathon never happened. In 1983, when Helsinki held the very first world athletics championships, a public marathon was held over the official course on the rest day, but the idea was never continued. Today, when I watch one of the big marathons (e.g., Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, or Tokyo) and bask in the spirit of effusive internationalism they encourage among runners and spectators from many different countries, I think it was an Olympic opportunity lost.
Our most contentious campaign was getting adequate financial support for Canadian athletes training for the Games. Despite the liberalization of the rules for Olympic eligibility, Canadian authorities refused to make any improvements. While Olympic suppliers and workers on the Olympic venues made record revenues and wages, the prospective members of the 1976 Canadian Olympic Team were broke and starving.
I heard the stories first-hand from the runners with whom I was training. In 1974, I had an injury-free year and found more time to train. I kept improving, had several good 10Ks, and won the Atlanta Marathon in a personal best of 2:20.18. I began dreaming about another Olympics in the marathon. Other track athletes, especially Canada’s best marathoner, Jerome Drayton, shared their worries. Jerome felt he could not continue to the Olympics without financial support. He had exhausted his savings and was cutting back on what he ate. It was only a matter of time before he quit running to get a job. Many other athletes told me the same.
In the winter of 1975, Abby Hoffman, Chris Preobrazenzki (a top judoka and U of T master’s student), Nancy Thomson (a former national team swimmer who was in my class in the political economy of sport), and I canvassed those athletes considered “hopefuls” for the Olympic Team about their income and expenses. Of 285 questionnaires, 123 were mailed back in just two weeks. The results were even more discouraging than we feared. The majority experienced severe financial difficulties. Many were unemployed, living on welfare or Unemployment Insurance, or depending upon parents’ or spouses’ incomes for support, even stealing food. Athletes eligible for federal grants-in-aid said that the cheques came late or not at all. Employed athletes reported that employers were reluctant to give them time away from work to compete abroad, and in some cases fired them outright.
No one said that their training was too onerous, only that they couldn’t afford to train without the basic conditions of life. Many were extremely bitter: “Athletes who qualify for the Olympics should perform in their own choice of dress and burn their Canadian uniforms in protest,” one wrote. “It is certainly too late to get into the lineup for medals.” Another wrote: “How can Canada expect me to do my best and train for them? Eating peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a bit too much. When the hell are we going to get some respect? Why train when
you’re hungry and have no pride!”
In response, we developed a proposal for athlete support based on the revenues and expenses identified and mailed it to the athletes. It included a basic living stipend of $200 a month “to be granted without a means test,” tuition and fees for student athletes, and a variety of supports, including child care, special equipment, and medical expenses not covered by Medicare, based on application and demonstrated need. The endorsement was overwhelming, so we presented it to the federal government. It turned us down. Minister Marc Lalonde and officials from Sport Canada told us that “professionalizing Olympic sport” was bad social policy, that if Canadian athletes received $200 a month they would quit school or their jobs and become athletic “bums.”
Out of desperation, we gave it to the media. We feared that some reporter would find one athlete who was opposed and it would be over. I was driving to Kingston when Barbara Frum began to interview the Hamilton weightlifter Russ Prior on CBC’s As It Happens about the proposal. Russ could be argumentative, and I was so nervous that I pulled over and parked on the shoulder of the 401. But we had done our homework. Russ told Barbara that he fully supported the proposal and wished that we had asked for more.
We cranked up the pressure by saying that unless our demands were met, we would continue to take political action, “up to and including a strike of the Olympic Games.” The analogy I used came from India. The year I taught there, the beggars in Varanasi went on strike, saying that unless pilgrims increased their donations, they would not give the blessings required for the washing away of sins in the Ganges. I said that the athletes were like the beggars at Varanasi, justifying the entire Olympic project with their symbolic labour. We received considerable editorial-page support, but sports columnists who covered professional athletes every day went nuts. Jack Mathieson of the Winnipeg Tribune called the proposal “unthinkable … An Olympic march-in without Canada would replace the Polish joke, which was never very funny anyway.” Dick Beddoes of the Globe and Mail warned that our proposals would bring about a Soviet-style
“revolution, unbearable impoverishment, and a forfeiting of the intellectual’s most cherished heritage, the right to talk back. Solzhenitsyn’s ordeal should remind Hoffman and Kidd and every other Canadian of the horrible price the proletarian dictators must exact in return for the least amelioration of the conditions of the masses. Okay. Stop whining and start winning.”
I had fun with that. I wrote the Globe urging the editors to encourage
“to defect for his own safety and peace of mind. After all, after our band of 300 Olympic athletes seizes the means of production, Parliament, the provincial legislatures, all newspapers, radio and TV stations, we’ll probably want to talk to him about his sports column.”
“Athletes tell Beddoes to defect” was the header the very next day.
Our campaign did convince the Canadian Olympic Association. Worried about sponsors, the COA invited Abby to Montreal to negotiate. We got virtually everything we asked for, including individualized packages of support and athlete-led administration. Abby took a leave from her teaching job at the University of Guelph to become the administrator, and Jerome Drayton became her assistant, with a training-sensitive schedule. Bob Secord of the Ontario government provided offices in Toronto.
The financial support enabled Canadian athletes to make their best showing since the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Abby made her fourth Olympic Team and her teammates unanimously elected her to carry the Canadian flag into the Opening Ceremonies. Jerome went on to set a Canadian record in the marathon that lasted more than 40 years. He finished sixth in the Olympic marathon and won Boston the following year. It was the start of Abby’s and Jerome’s long careers in the public service, and after the Games, the basis of Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program.
In April 1976, I stood with my students overlooking the construction site of the Olympic Stadium. None of us believed that it would be ready in time. But the genius of the concrete building-block design of French architect Roger Taillibert, a 24–7 work schedule those last few months, and Victor Goldbloom’s determination made it happen. When the Games opened on July 17, 1976, the organization proved flawless. Romania’s Nadia Comãneci opened the gymnastics with a string of perfect 10s; Edwin Moses of the US set a new world record in the men’s 400 hurdles; and the Polish men’s volleyball team defeated the favoured Soviet Union in a marathon match. Many others gave spectators and millions of television viewers around the world a whole new vocabulary of athletic excellence. Across Canada, the round-the-clock colour CBC coverage inspired thousands of children and youth to take up sports they had never witnessed before.
A joyous, intercultural spirit reigned throughout. “Gold medal for Montreal” proclaimed the headline in the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang, the day after the Closing Ceremonies. John MacAloon, the University of Chicago anthropologist who studies Olympic ceremonies and rituals, calls Montreal the most festive of the post-Second World War period. Long after the camera crews packed up after the Closing Ceremonies, he observed, people were partying in the Olympic spirit.
Nevertheless, the events were marred by the politics of international sport. Almost at the same time as the Olympics, a New Zealand rugby team toured South Africa, thumbing its nose at the international moratorium on sport with the apartheid state. When the IOC refused to condemn the tour, 29 African, Asian, and Caribbean nations took their teams home from Montreal (or never arrived) in protest. The departures hurt boxing, soccer, and track and field the most. The week before the Games, I watched Ethiopian and Kenyan runners destroy Canadian records in the distance events in a series of time trials. Now those remarkable runners, like Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi and Ethiopia’s Miruts Yifter, would not compete.
I did not make the Olympic Team. In 1975 and 1976, I incurred a succession of injuries and could never reach the times required. Drayton, Tom Howard, and Wayne Yetman (with whom I trained at Varsity Stadium) represented Canada in the marathon.
But my artistic efforts and journalism got me credentials to everything. Even without the Africans, it was one of the best track meets I have ever seen. I will never forget the remarkable doubles of Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena in the men’s 400 and 800, the Soviet Union’s Tatanya Kazinkina in the women’s 800 and 1500, and Finland’s Lasse Viren in the men’s 5,000 and 10,000 metres. In the 5,000, Viren took over the lead with 1,000 metres remaining, accelerating so gradually that it looked like anyone could pass him at any time. The entire field stayed bunched on his heels ready to pounce. Viren continued to accelerate, running each succeeding 100-metre segment slightly faster, so that, one by one, the very best runners in the world withered in the inferno of his wake while he kept his icy cool right up to the finish line. It still gives me chills to watch the replays. The uneasiness about all the might-have-beens never left, however. In an assessment for Weekend magazine written during the Closing Ceremonies, I said:
“For two weeks, all the contradictions seemed to stand still. In those magic moments, you forget that an entire continent felt it had to leave these Games, that the island of Montreal was an armed camp, or that the whole celebration cost about 10 times more than it should have. A golden opportunity to democratize sport and play
has been largely dissipated. The balance sheet is not a happy one. The Games cannot survive many more Montreals.”
More than 40 years later, I continue to see the Montreal Olympics as a kaleidoscope of achievements and contradictions, a “multiplenarrative.” Despite the tremendous debt from extravagant, corruption-inflated, poorly constructed facilities that took Quebeckers decades to pay off, the IOC, other host cities, and governments
across Canada have profitably adopted the financial policies Montreal put in place for the operations of the Games. One of its revenue initiatives, the lottery, now supplements public services in sport, culture, and health. It is rarely acknowledged that Montreal earned a surplus on its operations. Some of the initiatives taken at the time had long fuses, notably the encouragement of Montreal and Quebec sports. Up until those Games, francophone Quebeckers were significantly under-represented in Canadian championships and on Canadian national teams; in the Olympic
sports, “Quebec” meant McGill and Westmount. The 1976 Olympics began a proud new age for Quebec sport. Today, francophone Quebec athletes regularly lead Canadian teams. After the city of Montreal dug itself out from Olympic debt, it has provided some of the very best opportunities for its citizens in the country.
In English-speaking Canada, expenditures on sport levelled off after Montreal, and it took two other Olympics, Calgary and Vancouver-Whistler, to prime the pump again. We still rely heavily on major games as a strategy of domestic development. It works … to a point. It has given us important new facilities, program funds, and endowments for the major sports bodies. But after countless Olympic and Paralympic, Commonwealth, and Pan and Parapan American Games, we still lack a comprehensive strategy for the development of broadly based sport. Mayor Drapeau once told me that it will never happen in any other way, that with the perennial low levels of public support for amateur sport across Canada, even the modest facility and program development that did occur in the 1970s would never have happened without the adrenalin he created by winning the Games.
Other politicians have said the same. In 1999, during Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics, I asked Ontario premier Mike Harris: “Wouldn’t it just make more sense to develop the facilities and programs we need and save ourselves the time and expense of wooing somewhat questionable international officials to stage their Games, just so that we can justify investments in our own opportunities?” He thought about it for quite a while and then replied: “That would be the logical thing to do but it would never work in Canada. No politician can justify facilities for amateur sport without a major Games!”