Q&A: The Canadian athlete talks about his memoir, ‘A Runner’s Journey,’ and how athletics and social activism are inseparable 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 for Canadian Athlete of the Year to his name, Kidd has also been a strong advocate for athletes’ rights and the value of sports. Now 78, he has written his ninth book, A runner’s journey, a tightly structured memoir on the close relationship between sport and society, both in the world in general and in his own life.
Q: Your memories of growing up in the Toronto 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 amateurs and professionals and a more intense local interest. Can you really remember the Balmy Beach soccer team competing for the Gray Cup?
TO: Yes, that is correct. When he was a delivery man, he delivered newspapers or groceries or pharmacies to many of the players. My earliest memories of sports were that two or three of the local parents on our street played softball and hockey at a fairly high level. And we would go see them. They wouldn’t come to our games. We were going to watch them play. Then the adults stopped playing sports and spent their time training their children’s games. By the end of the 1950s, everything had changed.
Q: You write about the growing emphasis on high-level professionalism and the “pernicious genre” of mass participation sports.
TO: It was very much a time of transition. The Maple Leafs professional baseball team was one of the best minor league teams. In the last days of black baseball and the first years of integration, we got to see some notable players, from the very cheap seats provided for the children. I mean, I saw Satchel Paige! And it was also the last days of great women’s softball: A later classmate of mine had an aunt who played in that league. After the first war, there was a feminist dominance in sport, as in other areas. But after World War II, everything was closed: Rosie the Riveter sent home to have babies. One of the reasons it motivated me to write this book is because growing up, and even as I was becoming an advocate for athletes, 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 postwar years were the end point of a glorious period in women’s sport.
Q: A runner’s journey shows how much of that history sank into a memory hole, including the political activism that swirled around the 1936 Berlin Olympics, leading to the still-existing assumption that sports and politics are completely separate spheres. That was a personally painful attitude when you were a member of the Waffle, the radical wing of the NDP, around 1970.
TO: Yes. It was painful when people I admired said, if I left a meeting early because I had a clue 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 I was a banana getting into politics, which I understood because I also grew up with this commandment that sports and politics, sports and society, do not mix. All that when it was already quite difficult to pursue high performance sports 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 father, along with several professors as well, always supported me in doing more than one thing. For my father, it was always, don’t let other people tell you what you can and can’t do.
Q: The connecting theme of your memoirs is how the two strands of your life, athletics and social activism, were inseparable for you.
TO: Although I had many influences – parents and friends or role models in the community – who provided models of responsible political leadership, it was athletics that propelled me on my particular journey. Despite the fact that I was a small child among the older athletes, they sought me out to rescue them, defend them, find a solution and with more confidence than intelligence I entered that. Was it because of being an athletic prodigy or because of other qualities? That’s a great question. Do not know.
Q: After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, you began to focus on the broader place of sports in society, coming to believe that it is impossible to describe a society without discussing its sports. Can you expand on it?
TO: It was a process, not a eureka moment. Little by little I realized, as I began to apply the lens of political economy to sport, that communications, transportation, the spatial organization of cities, the calendar of daily life, and more were all molded or molded from somehow for sports. I could see it in the subway and streetcar lines and in development decisions in Toronto, all motivated in part by the possibilities of the sport. And that meant that we should start to see the big political issues in sport as public issues.
Q: Must part of the process have involved seeing the resurgence of sports activism in the protest era of the 1960s?
TO: My awakening was in that context, yes. The growing activism, the growing awareness, and the growing articulation of black athletes, that was telling. I was listening to the stories of teammates, like [Olympic medal-winning sprinter] Harry Jerome, and I cared that they trusted me to hear those stories. From running, I made a lot of connections with people on the track in the United States. I don’t remember the details, but Dick Gregory, who became one of the most famous black comedians in history, was a runner 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 that late, and we talked politics for a couple of hours. I think that’s where I first heard about this idea of boycotting an Olympic Games to protest the way black athletes were used in the context of the Cold War to promote a favorable image of the United States in Africa and Asia, and then sent them home to unemployment. Horrible housing, no medical care, etc. I had a whole series of those kinds of episodes when I was just a young man with open ears, and he started to take it in.
Q: You were involved very, very early, in the years after the Montreal Olympics was announced, in a backlash against the Olympic Games extravaganza that has continued to grow.
TO: Well, it was complicated, because of the way opinion was splitting. He advocated greater support for high-performance sports. and for a better national system to support non-elite sports and physical activity. I ran a lot along Lake Ontario and, thinking about that, I can assure you. The Olympics are full of contradictions because they involve multiple narratives, some very attractive and some not. I got to know [Montreal Mayor Jean] Drapeau and we were arguing about these things. He said, “I want what you want, but I don’t think the people of this country are willing to support a big investment in sport. So the only way to get it is a great idea to do something great. So you need these Olympics, which will cheer people up. ”These kinds of discussions are still going on. The IOC has to fight the costs. And the high-performance community has to address the needs of other sports participants. Both in the Games Olympics as in professional sports, high achievers give the impression that all is well after COVID-19, when in reality participatory sport has for the most part been devastated. The pitiful lows in participation are dropping like a stone, not only in first world countries like ours, but throughout the global south, with the consequent loss of physical endurance and mental health, etc. The number one global health crisis is not COVID, but non-communicable diseases: cardiovascular, diabetes, mental health.
Q: What do you see in the future, something hopeful or more of the same?
TO: I’m hopeful, but I’m not sure. I would like to think that the evidence on physical activity and non-communicable diseases, combined with the example of the middle and upper classes in societies like ours, who overcome the pandemic by walking, jogging, biking, etc., will be persuasive for more population and decision makers. But sadly, not a word was said about that during the recent elections, and I am extremely concerned that this, which should be a priority for the health of the population, is not yet on the political agenda.
Q: What about the other extreme, the high-performance look? Do you think governments and corporations will continue to invest money in that direction?
TO: There is growing skepticism about it. I don’t think there will ever be a new domed stadium in Toronto. And I don’t know about the Olympic bids either. They would have to be the cornerstone of proposals that would provide money for a major infrastructure renovation and promote sport for all. Then you could have a persuasive case. But just as a branding exercise, I don’t think there is a major city in Canada where there is a majority of people who would support that offer.