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by Bruce Kidd
Fortunately, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had an abiding interest in amateur sports. As a young Saskatchewan lawyer he paid his own way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and witnessed the pride that successful athletes stimulated among the German people. He also noted the favourable international image the Games gave Nazi Germany. He believed that similar benefits could occur in democratic countries and vowed to promote amateur sport as a source of national pride in Canada if he ever had the chance.
In 1961, at the urging of amateur sport leaders, the Diefenbaker Government passed the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act to shore up the amateur sports organizations and to enhance Canada's image abroad by strengthening Canadian performances in international competition. The legislation was greeted by widespread enthusiasm.
This Act facilitated the creation of national teams (replacing the club teams that previously represented Canada in international competition) and the Canada Games, and provided financial support for athletes' training and travel. Progress was slow, but the dramatic 1964 Olympic performances of Vic Emery's bobsledders, rowers Roger Jackson and George Hungerford, judoka Doug Rogers, and sprinters Bill Crothers and Harry Jerome showed that Canada was coming back. The successful Pan American Games in Winnipeg during Centennial Year provided a further boost.
At the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, Nancy Greene raced to slalom victory, heralding the dramatic return of Canadian women to competitive sports. In the Summer Games at Mexico, Canadian equestrians won the jumping gold medal, and Canadians moved up in several other sports, notably swimming, where the combined men's and women's team reached 19 finals, and took home four medals. Elaine Tanner, Vancouver's 17-year old 'Mighty Mouse', won three of those, in the 100- and 200-metre backstroke and the 4 x 100-metre freestyle relay.
The revitalization of amateur sport was furthered by the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, first elected in 1968. An enthusiastic participant in physical activity himself, Trudeau believed that the performances of Canadian athletes in international competition sharpened the 'image Canadians have of themselves'. In the face of Quebec separatism, western Canadian regionalism, Aboriginal people's anger, and the growing ethnocultural diversity that challenged traditional identities and allegiances, Trudeau sought to strengthen pan-Canadian unity through Olympic sport. Canadians could collectively cheer for Olympic Team members, drawn from every nationality and region, as they marched behind the maple leaf flag in identical red-and-white uniforms.
The Trudeau Government revolutionized Canadian amateur sport. It created the National Sport and Recreation Centre to strengthen the administration of the national sports organizations, the Coaching Association of Canada and the National Coaching Certification Program to enhance coaching, and the Athlete Assistance Program to provide greater financial support to athletes. These initiatives were coordinated by a new federal agency, Sport Canada. When Montreal was awarded the 1976 Olympics, these efforts were further accelerated and Olympic fever was at a high pitch.
While the Montreal Olympics are remembered by many as a failure resulting from the cost overruns occurred in building Olympic Stadium, they did provide a tremendous stimulus to the development of Canadian sports. The new programs put in place by Sport Canada -- what is now called 'the Canadian sport system' -- enabled Canadian athletes to win 11 medals in Montreal, and improved Canada's overall placing from 22nd (in Munich in 1972) to 10th. High jumper Greg Joy, swimmer Cheryl Gibson, paddler John Wood, and equestrian Michel Vaillancourt, all of whom won silver medals, brought great pride across the land.
The blanket national CBC television coverage -- the first time the Olympics were televised live in Canada -- stimulated a significant boost in participation rates among the population at large. In Quebec, where francophones had always been significantly underrepresented in the Olympic sports, the Montreal event inspired a new interest and new programs, so that today Quebec is one of the strongest regions for amateur sport in Canada. The new facilities ensured that Montreal would once again become a major centre of Canadian amateur sport.
The success of the new programs was even more strikingly demonstrated two years later, when Canadian athletes won the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton for the first and only time. With Canadian athletic performance at an all-time high, it was unfortunate that the COA, at the request of the Canadian government, voted not to attend the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; had they participated, Canadian athletes might have set new records for Olympic performance.