As I explained in an earlier version of these Chronicles, I am a guy who has been interested in sports ever since I was about six. I loved to play almost any game, and I played most of them well. At first I didn’t like to lose. But an elder brother who kept beating the pants off me at table tennis across our improvised dining room table, night after night, eventually taught me that it was all only just a game, that to really enjoy the game in its total sense one needed to learn both how to win and to lose gracefully. That is what I have always believed is the greatest lesson sport has to teach anyone who plays it. You can’t win ‘em all, and losing is part of the game that has to be mastered every bit as much as winning.
I still tend to judge any sportsman, or any sports team, by how they lose. If they can’t lose without bursting into tears, there’s something wrong with them. (This is my basic criticism of soccer: they treat every game like it is the Third World War). This was the essence of the amateur sports that were played everywhere as I was growing up. But we all know that nowadays amateur sports is confined to the guy who goes out on to the court to bang the ball around a bit, or who goes on a Saturday on to the links for the exercise. All the serious stuff is professional.
The Olympics, of which we have been fed a surfeit in recent days, exemplifies the professionalism that lies at the heart of every national sporting effort. Naturally, along with the burning desire to win at all costs comes the childlike waving of national flags, the repetition ad nauseum of national anthems, and the pitiless hyberbole of the highly paid commentators.
Never mind, I keep telling myself, underneath all the highly-paid mechanics, the essential burning effort manages to keep alive the excitement and glory of the contest. I have been addicted to it for so long that I can’t turn it off. As I have sat watching the Winter Olympics, I have watched totally rivetted to the young men and women, some of them no more than kids of 16 or 17, who have embarked on their bewildering series of jumps, twists, somersaults, and turns, my enthusiasm rising with their every success, and falling with their every fall.
I have followed Rugby Union as my primary interest in the last few decades, and I know that the old days where any local lad could make it into the big time are long gone. The essential question nowadays is to secure the funding: a couple of weeks ago, Rugby Canada lost two qualifying matches for the 2019 World Rugby Cup to Uruguay, something that would never have happened a few years ago, and thereby lost a grant from the government of almost half a million dollars. You have to produce results to get the money, that’s the rule. Especially in the more popular sports, nowadays any local lad who shows any exceptional talent at the age of 10 or 11 is whisked away to be trained in a so-called academy, his or her physique carefully nurtured, his or her size built up or trimmed down according to what the coaches judge to be the primary need.
Just how far this invasion of money into what used to be amateur sports has gone was graphically illustrated last weekend in an article in the Globe and Mail by Cathal Kelly, who is one of the more thoughtful of our sports writers in Canada, about a group of 10 to 13 rich men who have been persuaded by an outfit called B2ten (I don’t know what it means) to contribute big sums of money to be directly paid to elite athletes to ensure that they never falter along the way. When I say they are rich, I mean they are among the richest in our society, men like Stephen Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram fortune, and Andre Desmarais, president of the Power Corporation, both among the wealthiest companies in the land. These men deny they were making the gifts because they just want to hang out with athletes. “It isn’t that,” said Desmarais, “we just want them to do well.”
Kelly outlines the means by which this money was funneled towards Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, the exceptional ice dance champions, who have come through so spectacularly for their third gold medal in the discipline. As they settled into their training routines, their coaches approached B2ten, who were wary of making an offer. The point man was Dominick Gauthier, husband of former champion Jennifer Heil, who told the coaches the skaters would have to apply directly to him. In the event the rich men contributed some $85,000 additional monies to the ice dancers, taking their total income along with government grants to between $150,000 to $175,000 a year. (Kelly notes that this sum is quite reasonable for high-level athletes: a few blocks away in Montreal, Shea Weber, the highly-paid defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens has been making nearly twice as much as that every week to lose games.)
The information that blew my mind, however, was what the money enabled the skaters to buy. They bought a dozen experts as support staff: an osteopath, a physiologist, a nutritionist, a Pilates instructor, a masseur, a mental preparation consultant, two strength advisers, for power and micro-movement, the two coaches they already had, and Gauthier as director of the B2ten project. These rich men were interested in results: of the eight athletes supported by their grants, five had already won medals in Korea, Virtue and Moir taking their tally of Olympic medals to five, more than have been won by any ice skaters in history. The whole group of advisers met every six weeks or so to discuss Virtue and Moir’s progress “as if it was an infrastructure project,” comments Kelly, and the skaters were expected to be in the room to account for their progress.
Whatever else this might be, it is certainly the end of amateurism, not that there is anything new about that. But the rich men express themselves well pleased with the gold medals, and the commentators, the Scott Russells and Kurt Brownings, and Tracy Wilsons, were able to wax eloquent about the intrinsic beauty of the performance, just as if it had appeared full-grown as if by magic. It is true, of course, that all the strength consultants, mental fitness experts and so on can’t win gold medals: only the athletes can do that. They have to perform.
But this level of support seems to have taken the sport well beyond what I have always thought of as sports, a pastime, played for enjoyment --- into a brand new realm that I have no words to describe.