On the surface it wasn’t a match made in heaven, a Quebec ethicist and a former Olympic athlete. One committed to participation in sport for the sheer joy of it. The other focused on athletic competition with a laser focus on winning.

Yet the beautiful music they and others created transformed sport in Canada to what most Canadians want – sport that values fairness, excellence, inclusion and fun.

Values you will recognize in this statement by race walker, Evan Dunfee when he decided not to appeal a race altercation that might have earned him a bronze medal at Rio. “I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.” 

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Like all great relationships, particularly those that reconcile differences, they began with talking. Brown bag luncheons hosted by the ethicist, Victor Lachance. Luncheons that grew into the creation of Sport Matters Group (SMG), which effectively reshaped Canada’s sport policy landscape. Things like Canada’s Physical Activity and Sports Act and tax incentives to support the fitness of young Canadians. Elizabeth Mulholland suggests they are a model for effective social policy groups in Canada. I agree. (Here is a complete list of their achievements.)

Like all great relationships, the informal ties were more important than the formal. SMG never incorporated, never rented offices and never hired an ED. They did recruit that former Olympian, Ian Bird as their Senior Leader who was content to sit at a borrowed desk at the back of a borrowed office.

Like all great relationships, they were playful and irreverent. Their major strategic plan was called a BHD (Big Honking Document).

Before SMG the sport community in Canada resembled the worst aspects of the sectors I’ve been part of, egos the size of a stadium, turf protection, competition for scarce resources; dominance by the big players i.e Olympic contenders.

Three previous attempts to create some kind of sport federation in Canada had collapsed because of serious differences of opinion about:

  • Equity versus excellence
  • Participation versus success
  • Inclusion versus competition
  • Playground versus podium.

For this ‘either-or thinking’ to shift. For suspicion and hostility to disappear. For reconciliation to occur, they created space for tough but civil debate that would enable trust to grow. To do that they imagined themselves as an “underground New York artists collective.” Which led to the creation of an ‘un-organization.’ How sweet is that?

The result – the emergence of a new story.  A story that everyone could get behind.  A simple statement, “Sport matters to everyone,” led to magnificence. Furthermore, they asserted, sport is a public asset. Indeed.

That’s why some of our greatest athletes, people like Simon Whitfield and Clara Hughes, are critical of ‘Own the Podium’ with its obsession for supporting medal contenders. Simon, Clara and of course Evan know the secret of a great relationship. It’s the love you put into it. Not the accolades you seek from others.

Note: For further reading check out Paul Jurbala’s, The Sport Matters Group: “Un-organizing” the Future of Canada’s Not-for-Profit Sector. It has an afterward by Ian Bird. It’s a great model for those looking to shake up how they work together.

EH!

Winning is not everything, and medals are not everything. I have finished in second-to-last place in the Olympics and been profoundly affected as a human being, and I’ve won the Olympics and been dragged to the depths of despair as a human being. So many times I was asked about winning and ‘owning the podium,’ and I always said, ‘Those are not my words; I do not feel that way.

– Clara Hughes

Musical accompaniment this post “Do the Thing Right” by the Polaris Prize-nominated singer, Zaki Ibrahim. Purchase here.

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