Q&A: Canadian athlete discusses his memoir, “A Runner’s Journey,” and how athleticism and social activism go hand in hand for him
Athlete, scholar and author, Bruce Kidd has been an iconic presence in Canadian sport for six decades. A long-distance runner with 18 championships and a Lou Marsh Trophy as Outstanding Canadian Athlete of the Year to his name, Kidd has also been a strong advocate for athlete rights and the value of sport. At 78, he wrote his ninth book, A runner’s course, a tightly structured dissertation on the close interweaving between sport and society, both in the world at large and in his own life.
Q: Your memories of your childhood in Toronto’s Beach neighborhood aren’t just about your own childhood. You vividly portray an almost forgotten sporting past, when there was more of a continuum between amateur and professional and more intense local interest. Do you really remember the Balmy Beach football team competing for the Gray Cup?
A: Yes that is correct. When I was a delivery man, I delivered papers, groceries or pharmacies to many players. My earliest memories of sports were that two or three of the fathers on our street played softball and hockey at a fairly high level. And we were going to see them. They wouldn’t come to our games. We were going to see them play. Then the adults stopped playing sports themselves and spent their time training their children’s games. By the end of the 1950s, everything had changed.
Q: You write about the growing importance given to high-end professionalism and the “pernicious genre” of mass participation sports.
A: It was truly a period of transition. The Maple Leafs professional baseball team was one of the best teams in the minor leagues. In the last days of black baseball and the first years of integration, we were able to see some remarkable players, thanks to the very inexpensive seats provided to the children. I mean, I watched Satchel Paige! And it was also the last days of great women’s softball – one of my teammates later had an aunt who played in that league. After the first war, there was a rise in feminist power in sport, as in other fields. But after WWII everything was shut down – Riveter Rosie was sent home to have babies. One of the reasons I was motivated to write this book is that growing up — and even as an athlete advocate — I knew very little about the history of Canadian sport. I didn’t know until I started studying it, 20 or 30 years later, that the post-war years were the end of a glorious period for women’s sport.
Question: A runner’s course shows how much of this history has been sunk into a memory hole – including the political activism that swirled around the Berlin Olympics in 1936 – leading to the still current assumption that sport and politics are entirely distinct spheres. It was a personally painful attitude when you were a member of the Waffle, the radical wing of the NDP, around 1970.
A: Yes. It was hurtful when the people I looked up to said, if I left a meeting early because I had a lead the next morning, “Bruce, why are you still running?” Why do you waste your life playing sports? “And I would also have teammates who thought that I was bananas in politics, which I understood because I too, I grew up with this command that sport and politics, sport and society, do not do good. housework. All this when it was hard enough to pursue high performance sport and academic excellence at the University of Toronto at the same time. But I was stubborn in giving up one or the other, and my dad, along with several teachers as well, always supported the idea of doing more than one thing. For my dad it was always, don’t let others tell you what you can and can’t do.
Q: The common theme of your memoirs is how the two parts of your life, athletics and social activism, were inseparable for you.
A: While I have had so many influences – from parents, friends, or examples in the community – that have provided role models for responsible political leadership, it was athletics that propelled me on my particular journey. Even though I was that little kid among the older athletes, they looked to me to bail them out, defend them, find a solution, and with more confidence than brain I walked into that. Is it because I am an athletic prodigy or because of other qualities? This is an excellent question. I do not know.
Q: After the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, you started to focus on the larger place of sport in society, coming to believe that it is impossible to describe a society without discussing its sports. Can you expand?
A: It was a process, not a eureka moment. I gradually realized, as I began to apply the prism of political economy to sport, that communications, transportation, the spatial organization of cities, the schedule of daily life and more were all shaped by, or shaped in one way or another, by sport. I could see it in the subway and streetcar lines and development decisions in Toronto, all driven in part by the possibilities of the sport. And that meant we had to start seeing big political issues in sport as public issues.
Q: Part of the process must have involved seeing the resurgence of sports activism in the protests era of the 1960s?
A: My awakening took place in this context, yes. The growing activism, growing awareness and growing articulation of black athletes, it opened my eyes. I heard the stories of teammates, like [Olympic medal-winning sprinter] Harry Jerome, and it mattered to me that I was trusted to hear these stories. While running, I made a lot of links with people from the American track. I don’t remember the details, but Dick Gregory, who went on to become one of the most famous black comedians of all time, was a runway guy and his brother ran for Notre Dame. And when he showed up at a bar in downtown Toronto, I went to see him – even though I didn’t go to bars or stay so late – and we talked politics. for a few hours. I think that’s where I first heard about this idea of boycotting the Olympics to protest the way black athletes were used in a Cold War context to promote a favorable image of the States- United in Africa and Asia, then sent home with unemployment, horrible housing, no medical care and so on. I had a whole series of episodes like this when I was just this young man with my ears open, and it started to sink in.
Q: You were involved very, very early on, in the years following the announcement of the Olympic Games in Montreal, in a backlash against Olympic extravagance that has continued to grow.
A: Well, it was complicated, because of the way opinions were separating. I pleaded for stronger support for top-level sport and for a better national support system for non-elitist sports and physical activity. I have run a lot along Lake Ontario and I think about it, I can tell you that. The Olympics are full of contradictions because they involve multiple narratives, some very appealing and some not. I must know [Montreal Mayor Jean] Drapeau and we were arguing about it. He said, “I want what you want, but I don’t believe the people of this country are ready to support a huge investment in sport. So the only way to get it big is to do a big thing. So you need these Olympics, which will galvanize people. This kind of debate is still going on. The IOC must fight against costs. And the high performance community must meet the needs of other sport participants. Both in the Olympics and in professional sports, top performers make it seem like all is well after COVID-19, when in fact participatory sport has been largely devastated. Already dismal declines in participation are falling like a stone, not only in first world countries like ours, but in countries of the South, with a resulting loss of physical resilience and mental health etc. The number one global health crisis is not COVID, but noncommunicable diseases – cardiovascular, diabetes, mental health.
Q: What do you see in the future, something hopeful or more of the same?
A: I am hopeful, but not confident. I would like to think that the evidence of physical activity and noncommunicable diseases, combined with the example of the middle and upper classes in societies like ours who are going through the pandemic by walking, jogging, biking , etc., will be convincing for more of the population and decision-makers. But, unfortunately, there was not a word about it during the last elections, and it troubles me greatly that this, which should be a priority for the health of the population, is not yet on the agenda. political day.
Q: What about the other end, the high performance aspect? Do you think governments and businesses will continue to pour money in this direction?
A: There is growing skepticism about this. I don’t think there would ever be a new domed stadium in Toronto. And I don’t know about the Olympic candidacies either. They should be the cornerstone of proposals that would bring in money for major infrastructure renewal and promote sport for all. Then you could have a compelling case. But just as a branding exercise, I don’t think there is a big city in Canada where there would be a majority of people supporting this candidacy.