August 5, 1996
EMBRACE ALL OUR ATHLETES
By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD
At The Olympics
ATLANTA -- As it was for the Canadians at the beginning of these Olympics, so it is at the end.
There in the background, almost obscured by the brilliance of athletic performance and the dazzle of sideshow, is the spectre of racism, just as it was also present in the days immediately before the Centennial Games opened, when Canada's premier track star, Oakville's Donovan Bailey, found himself smack in the middle of a nasty brouhaha.
The controversy was sparked by the pre-Olympics issue of Sports Illustrated, the powerful U.S. magazine which was also an official Games' sponsor.
In this issue, in the middle of a story about Bailey, was a quote attributed to him by writer Michael Farber. Bailey was quoted as saying that Canada "is as blatantly racist" as America.
It set off that most modern of furors, which is to say the subject was beaten to death on open-line radio shows, and in the process, Bailey personally took a bit of a beating.
In fact, as the story developed, it looks more and more as though the great sprinter, who always maintained that what he'd said was that Canada was not as blatantly racist as the U.S., very likely was misquoted. Farber, before Sports Illustrated put the muzzle on him, admitted his notes may not have been accurate.
But Canadians who were clearly hurt by what they thought Bailey had said, might want to keep a sharp eye on what happens in the next little while to two of Bailey's teammates on the gold medal-winning relay team - the eccentric Robert Esmie of Sudbury and Glenroy Gilbert, the engaging and quite gorgeous young man from Ottawa who is the acknowledged spiritual leader of the relay team.
Bailey, of course, as the world and Olympic champion in the 100 metres, is a man on the brink of real wealth. Even going into these Olympics, he had no fewer than five major corporations as his sponsors.
Behind him, but still able to make a good living in track, is Montreal's Bruny Surin. He is popular in Europe, invited to international meets, and has sponsors of his own in Quebec where he's adored.
For Gilbert and Esmie, the story is quite different.
Gilbert, with Bailey and Surin, will likely be heading to Europe soon for competitions, but that, in some measure at least, is a result of Gilbert being Bailey's training partner at Austin, Tex., and his dear friend. Bailey is a loyal and generous man. It is quite fair, I think, to say that he takes care of his own.
But Gilbert has no sponsors personally, despite his concerted campaign to get some. He is dependent on Bailey's largess.
Esmie is in a similar position, though, as my colleague Steve Buffery points out, but he is luckier than Gilbert in one way - Esmie is a small-town boy, with something of a small-town following. The whole world saw him proudly wearing his blue-and-white Inco hat at the team's victory press conference the other night. Gilbert, meanwhile, is a product of Ottawa, a bigger city, a civil-service town, much less likely a community than Sudbury to get behind a local track star.
Esmie, who is 24, is in debt as a result of his sport; he said so, albeit with remarkable good cheer, after winning the gold. Gilbert, in my view equally without rancor, is also tired of scraping and sweating to keep bread on the table. He would like to run another couple of years, he says, but isn't sure he's up to it without some financial support beyond what he receives through Athletics Canada, which is sponsored by Canadian Airlines, UPS and Mennen - with Timex the particular, and now blessed, sponsor of the relay squads - and a small allowance from Sport Canada.
BEST IN THE WORLD
These are two splendid and accomplished young men, as is the fellow you could call the fifth Beatle - Carlton Chambers, a 21-year-old from Mississauga, who couldn't run the final because of an injury but who helped get the Canadians through the heats and semis.
They are well-spoken. They are the best in the world. They are not dilettantes. They have restored track's good name, both in Canada and outside. As Gilbert said, "We've erased the effects of the Ben Johnson era. We're doing this with no drugs, completely clean. If Canadians don't think we are for real now..." It is difficult to imagine two better young Canadians.
After they won the gold medal, reporters interviewed them in what's called the mixed zone, and after that, I ran back up to the fourth level of the Olympic Stadium. I wanted to hear O Canada and see my countrymen on the podium in person, not on television.
Cecil Smith, more excited than anyone had ever seen him, had sneaked back up to do the same thing. Smith, Welsh-born of a Russian/Jewish mother and an African father, is one of Canada's leading track and field authorities, and a lovely man.
I was gushing about how much I loved the team and how I hoped, when Glenroy Gilbert and Robert Esmie came home, they'd have sponsors beating down their doors, too.
"Wrong color, I'm afraid," said Smith in his clipped, pragmatic way. "It won't happen."
It ought to happen. If Joanne Malar, that nice, inoffensive telegenic blonde swimmer from Hamilton, can get endorsements, so should Gee, as Gilbert is called, and dear Robert Esmie in his Inco hat.
How awful it would be if the remark Donovan Bailey never made turns out to have been prophetic.