Lillehammer '94—The Importance of the Olympics to Canada
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 20 Jan 1994, p. 266-277
Read, Ken, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Personal experiences as a skiier, and as a Canadian. What the Lillehammer Olympics mean to Canadians. The "Crazy Canuck" - what that used to mean and how the term evolved. Canadian athletic success. The decline of Canadian sports programmes. Solutions.
Date of Original
20 Jan 1994
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
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Full Text
Ken Read, President, Ken J. Read Consulting
Chairman: Dr. Frederic L. R. Jackman President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Denise Cole, Special Assistant, Social Policy and Media Relations to Mayor, City of Toronto and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Kevin Bidwell, Floor Hockey Athlete, Special Olympics; The Rev. Wolf Belzing, Pastor, First Evangelical Lutheran Church; Catherine R. Charlton, President, The Charlton Group and a Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Dan Matheson, Sports Broadcaster and Host of CTV's television coverage of the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics; The Hon. Shirley Coppen, Associate Minister of Culture, Tourism and Recreation, Province of Ontario; Paul Scargall, Borden & Elliot and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Liz Rodrigues, grade 13 student, West Toronto Collegiate Institute; Michael Costello, Volunteer Hockey Co-ordinator, Special Olympics; Brian Williams, Sports Broadcaster CBC-TV, has hosted more Olympic events than any other broadcaster in North America and teamed with Ken Read for the last 10 years as the voice of World Cup skiing; Barbara Ann Scott King, Olympic, World and European Figure Skating Champion of 1948.

Introduction by Dr. Jackman

In 1980, at Lake Placid, N.Y., there was a clear favourite to win the Olympic downhill. That young man had already won a few world downhill championships and North America was expecting its first Olympic gold. Out of the starting gate, Ken Read that day experienced a tragic equipment failure--his binding released, he lost a ski, he was out of the race. Young Steve Podborski carried the torch for Ken Read and won the bronze medal giving Canada its first men's downhill Olympic medal.

Despite the Lake Placid mishap, Ken Read was the first North American male to ever win a world downhill championship. He accomplished this feat at Val d'Isere, France in 1975.

Sometime afterwards, Ken, along with Brian Williams were careening by taxi down the switchback curves of the Val d'Isere mountain at 90 kph. Brian turning to Ken said, "Aren't you scared Ken, you speak French--tell the driver to slow down!" Ken replied, "Don't worry, Brian, I go down this mountain faster than this on a pair of sticks."

Ken Read led Canada's downhill team, which became known as the "Crazy Canucks," to world fame with five World Cup victories. Retiring from active competition after 10 years, in 1983, he told his story in the book White Circus: A Skiing Life with the Crazy Canucks (1987).

His ability to speak--he speaks or gets by in five languages--landed him beside Brian Williams for the last 10 years as the CBC voice of World Cup Skiing. Others have said that these two are the best play-by-play combination sportscasters any where (with apologies to CTV). He also broadcasts, during World Cup coverage, his own programme, "The Read Report."

In addition to broadcasting, Ken Read writes a column for our Financial Post, as well as Ski Canada Magazine. He contributes to several other magazines including Canadian Airlines in-flight magazine.

He remains involved in organized sport. He is the first Canadian athlete to be invited to join the prestigious International Olympic Committee's Athlete's Advisory Council.

Furthermore, Ken Read was the founding chair of Canada's Athletes' Council, he became Vice-President of the Canadian Olympic Association and in 1992 distinguished Canada as our Chef de Mission for our Olympic Team to Barcelona.

His business interests, represented by Kenneth John Read Consulting, include promotional work with Coca-Cola, Bolle Solomon & Descente amongst several others.

Perhaps what is less well known is Ken Read's belief in Canada and our heritage. While born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he is a believer in our traditions and in our Queen. He has a sense of what Canada is about. Both of Canada's major federal parties have asked him--and he has declined, so far--to run for federal office.

He believes in drug-free sports and in a non-smoking world. Attacking problems in life, like he did the downhill, Ken Read created the "Breath of Life" Invitational (Ski) Challenge when he learned that his nephew, Andrew had cystic fibrosis. Now 10 years old, with Toshiba as a sponsor, the fund-raising races span the country. By this year's end the invitational will have raised over $600,000 for cystic fibrosis.

Over the years, Ken Read has received many distinctions for his achievement and contribution to sport and to Canada. In 1978, he was the Canadian Athlete of the Year. He was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1986 and most importantly, his country bestowed upon him the Order of Canada in 1991.

For his extraordinary contribution to winter sport, he was invited in 1988, to carry the Olympic Torch on its final leg into Calgary's Olympic Stadium.

Ken Read knows the value of sport from many perspectives and we are fortunate that he will address us on "Lillehammer '94--The Importance of the Olympics to Canada."

Would you please welcome Ken Read.

Ken Read

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to join you today, to share with you some of my experiences from international skiing and to take a look towards the Lillehammer Olympics and what they mean to us as Canadians. I would like to first acknowledge several distinguished individuals at our head table, who have made some very significant contribution to Olympic sport in Canada--Barbara Ann as an athlete, Brian Williams as an outstanding Olympic host for CBC Sports in Los Angeles, Seoul and Albertville, George Gross who has brought the Olympics to us through the pages of the Toronto Sun and Paul Henderson as an Olympic administrator.

When Eric Jackman invited me to speak to you today, he gave me some background about The Empire Club and a few of the speakers you have heard--Winston Churchill, Stephen Leacock, Ronald Reagan--pretty illustrious company. It got me a bit nervous to follow in the footsteps of leaders in politics, the arts, literature and business. But did any of them try to earn a living skiing down the side of a mountain at 130 kph?

I've been introduced to you as a "Crazy Canuck." I get a lot of people asking me exactly where the name came from. Well, if you've spent any time on the ski slopes up at Blue Mountain you would realize that "Crazy Canuck" is a very good description of how most Canadians ski."

Seriously though, the name "Crazy Canuck" was coined by Serge Lang--known in skiing circles as the "Father of the World Cup." In skiing, we have had to rely on the talent of our women to build Canada's reputation. Our long line of "Golden Girls"--Lucille Wheeler to Anne Heggveit to Nancy Greene to Betsy Clifford to Kathy Kreiner to Gerry Sorensen to Laurie Graham to Karen Percy to Kerrin Lee-Gartner to Kate Pace--a pretty impressive list of Olympic and World Championship medalists. No one could ever accuse Canadians about being chauvinists in skiing!

We men had the rare good result. In 1950 Ernie McCollough finished fifth in the World Championship slalom, Jim Hunter finished fourth in a World Cup in 1973 and Dave Irwin sixth in 1975--a pretty lean record. All that changed on December 7, 1975. In the first race of that season, at Val d'Isere, France four Canadians placed in the top 10, finishing 1-4-9-10. The effect on the European ski powers was very much like the shock that swept across Canada when Russia beat the NHL pros in the 1972 Russia-Canada series. A rag-tag band of "outsiders" had upset the ski hierarchy, becoming the first non-European team to win in downhill--the final bastion of European hegemony in ski racing. Even worse--two weeks later in Schladming, Austria we rubbed salt in the wounds of the Europeans by winning again!

To explain this phenomenon, Serge Lang wrote: "These Canadians ski like they are crazy ... taking every risk." From there, the label "Crazy Canuck" stuck. To be honest, originally it was a very derogatory phrase. This was the way the European skiing establishment justified how Canadians could win races--only by taking unnecessary, foolish risks. In fact, we were simply patterning ourselves off the best skier of the day--Franz Klammer. But to the European, it was inconceivable that Canadians might have defined a new way of ski racing--by attacking the course. For a while it appeared that the Europeans may have been right. We had a number of pretty spectacular crashes, which added to the lore of the "Crazy Canucks." But fortunately, we survived and went on to win 22 World Cup races and counting. By 1980, when we began our most productive years, "Crazy Canuck" had become a term of affection.

Why? We had a passion for downhill. You could see it in our faces. We loved to go fast! We broke the monopoly of Austrian-Swiss dominance of downhill, introducing a "third" force. We also stood outside the traditional skiing rivalries of Europe. We had the ironic benefit of being the "second favourite." At Kitzbuhel, we would get fans saying "if our Austrian skiers like Klammer or Grissman don't win, we hope for you so the Swiss don't win." In Wengen, it was the other way around. "We want our Swiss skiers Russi or Mueller to win but if they don't, we cheer for you too to beat the Austrians." The same went for France, Germany and Italy. So it was like having a private cheering section at every stop. There was also one other factor which helped us immensely in Europe. Thanks to our schooling in Canada, we had basic grounding in French. Those skills helped us to easily pick up German. At every opportunity we would speak to people in their own language--at ski races, to the media, in TV interviews, or on the street. This made us realize the importance of language skills--it made me realize that bilingualism or tri-lingualism is not an imposition or liability but a very valuable asset. Knowledge of languages opened doors and gave us thousands of allies across Europe.

Today, "Crazy Canuck" is a proud name in skiing. It was interesting to hear the Austrian media describe the stunning World Cup results from Saalbach two weeks ago where Edi Podivinsky and Gary Mullen finished 1-2 as "ruckerr der Crazy Canucks," "the return of the Crazy Canucks." Like the name "Montreal Canadiens" is to a young hockey player, for young skiers becoming a "Crazy Canuck" is a proud tradition of excellence. For the generation of skiers that followed our quartet, it may have contributed to some of the frightful falls, as the skill level of some of our top skiers may not have matched the public expectation and image of how a "Crazy Canuck" was supposed to ski. But the recent success of our men in World Cup competition is, in my mind, a clear indication that a new generation of skiers with the talent to win are now ready to carry on a proud tradition.

And speaking of proud, our skiers are amongst 100 of Canada's finest young athletes who will be traveling to Lillehammer, Norway for the 17th edition of the Olympic Winter Games in just over two weeks. This is a team that will make us all proud. By February 12th, the day of the Opening Ceremonies, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who is not at least aware of the Olympics. Why? This will be Canada's most successful Olympic Team ever. A conservative estimate of performance would be seven medals--two in figure skating, two in freestyle and three in short-track speed-skating. If the winter gods smile on us, it is entirely reasonable that Canada may come away with as many as 15 medals from Lillehammer. To put this in perspective, our previous best was 1992 in Albertville where the Canadian Olympic Team won seven medals.

The list of performers that are, or will become household names is incredible: in alpine skiing--1993 World Ski Champion Kate Pace, 1992 Olympic Champion Kerrin Lee-Gartner and the two latest World Cup medalists--Edi Podivinsky and Cary Mullen. In figure skating: World Champions--Isabel Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler and the top two ranked male skaters in the world: Elvis Stoiko and Kurt Browning. In short-track speed-skating: World Champion Sylvie Daigle, backed up by two World Champion relay teams. In long-track speed-skating: World Cup medalist Susan Auch. In freestyle: World Champions Jean-Luc Brassard in moguls and Phillipe Laroche and Lloyd Langois in aerials, and World Cup medalist John Smart. In bobsleigh: World Cup winners Chris Lori and Pierre Lueders. In biathlon: 1993 World Champion Miriam Bedard. And not to forget our hockey team as well. Canada is a power at the Olympic Winter Games, a fact which should not come as a surprise since we have a well-known reputation as a country of ice and snow.

Canadian athletes succeed despite some formidable barriers. One of the most daunting is the size of our country. Let me give you an example of just how big a challenge we face in trying to create common cause across 6,000 km. In skiing, we have four key regions that produce talent: Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. As you can imagine, it is time-consuming and costly to bring top athletes together to train and compete. Add in our relatively meager population and on-going financial pressures. To become a World Cup winner, a Canadian must work through these hurdles, plus face ski-mad countries like Switzerland and Austria where their population may be smaller than ours, but they can bring together every member of the National Team from every corner of the country in less than three hours. If you superimposed Canada over Europe, for us it would be like bringing together athletes from Lisbon in Portugal to Moscow in Russia.

But we have overcome our geographic barriers through the greatest resource of our country. Recently, I was at a luncheon where Roy Romanow, Premier of Saskachewan was the guest speaker. Premier Romanow described Canada as "a triumph of politics over geography and economics." I would differ only slightly from the Premier's description of our country, adding that "Canada is a triumph of people over geography and economics." People--parents, educators, coaches, friends, and spectators--lend vast amounts of love, financial support, time and effort to realize the dreams of our best athletes.

But we succeed in spite of our geography. We succeed because of people. We succeed because of our own unique approach--combining private-sector support with public-sector resources. We succeed because we have a far less chauvinistic society than any in Europe. We aren't perfect yet, but women get far better financial support and respect for their success in sport in Canada than any European country, including Scandinavia. We succeed thanks to the openness of our borders and our tolerance of newcomers to Canadian society. Many of the individuals who have built athletic success in Canada are new Canadians: first or second generations or landed immigrants, who have brought their passion or experience to our sport programmes. And Canada is better for it.

We succeed because it really is remarkable how much we have in common across this vast corner of the world. From St. John's, to la ville de Quebec, to Toronto, to Calgary to Victoria, notwithstanding what some regional politicians might have to say, we really do have a common purpose, interests and ideology--hockey, Canadian peace keepers, medicare, the CBC, and having visited the West, the Maritimes and now Central Canada in the last four days, our world-famous snow and cold temperatures.

But there is the bad news: in the moment of our greatest triumph, our sport programmes are dying.

Olympic sport in Canada has been built through the joint contribution of corporate sponsors and government funding. We are all well aware of the financial straightjacket that embraces every government in Canada. We are in a period of restraint and restructuring. No one is exempt and sport will be no exception. But while we re-examine many of the sectors that have defined Canadian society--health care, unemployment insurance, education; equalization payments, regional diversification, multiculturalism--with an eye to restructuring to match demand with revenues, when do we defend investment in common national purpose, common goals, in our youth, in our future?

Our federal government faces a $46 billion annual deficit. Olympic sport receives approximately $60 million annually--already cut back some 25 per cent in the past two to three years. Today, I stand before you as an advocate that this is money well-spent--in both the national interest and in building positive role models who by realizing their dreams create dreams for hundreds of thousands of young children across our country.

Dreams mature into goals and goals are what drive productive people. Consider these facts. As taxpayers it costs us $51,000 to incarcerate a prisoner in Kingston Penitentiary for one year. It costs us about the same to train one Olympic skier for one year. We spend $1.5 billion annually maintaining our prison system. As I said earlier, we spend $60 million annually on Olympic sport. For the tremendous positive spin-offs for our national morale and development of positive role models what we spend is a pittance.

In this case, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. We would be well served in Canada to spend more on our youth, on our future, keeping them busy with programmes of every kind--sport, arts, culture in addition to a renewed commitment to education. The laissez faire approach to Olympic sport will not work. Today's focus in the corporate sector is on cost-cutting, putting a squeeze on promotional dollars. The reason why government got into the sport sector in the first place was the lack of financial support for grass-roots programmes that lack the profile of the pro-sport franchises. Even professional sport is sucking up available dollars as these businesses convert to entertainment enterprises.

Who picks up the slack? Can we, as a nation, afford to abandon one of the key programmes that provides the glue that binds together our country? Can we afford not to invest in our youth? The productive, focussed youth of today are productive, focussed adults of tomorrow--our future leaders and captains of industry.

I sincerely hope that when one of our athletes climbs up on the podium and you see the maple leaf rising to the strains of O Canada, you remember that moment, savour that moment, that pride that one of "ours," a product of Canadian society, has realized a goal, a dream, and we can all share in it. I also want you to remember that these victories will have a profound effect on thousands of young children right across the country. They will be inspired. They will start to dream their own dreams, establish their own goals, and we can't let them down.

So what are the solutions? How can we preserve our high performance sport programmes in the face of severe deficit problems? I believe we can. In the same way we must deal with our imbalances with unemployment insurance or health care--by restructuring, by re-inventing government.

First, by commitment to baseline funding. A $60-million base to allow our sports administrators the ability to plan rather than be whipsawed by fiscal uncertainty year after year.

Second, by streamlining. As I said, $60 million goes to sport, but the total financial envelope to the Ministry of Fitness and Amateur Sport is $90 million. One out of every three dollars is consumed by the bureaucracy to evaluate, monitor and implement affirmative-action programmes. We can't afford it. The best kind of evaluation in sport is when you get in the start gate--harsh, but effective and accurate.

Third, stop bottom line slashing. The previous federal administration implemented across the board cuts of 15 per cent and 10 per cent to all Fitness and Amateur Sports programmes. A cut of this sort to the administration reduces costs--secretarial positions, paper, travel. To a sport programme it cannibalizes and guts the environment for success.

Fourth is advocacy. Non-fiscal tools can play an important role in boosting the profile of sport. The CRTC licenses TV and radio, encouraging Canadian programming. Add Canadian sport programming as a priority. Use external affairs to profile our efforts. Understand that education is a combination of healthy mind and healthy body to produce productive citizens.

We can preserve the investment we have built. I am using every opportunity to tell our new federal government how important it is. I hope you will do the same.

The Olympic Games have moments of greatness, drama, disappointment and heartbreak. This pinnacle of sport is a goal, the motivation for enormous devotion to excellence. It astounds me that wherever I travel in the world, on six continents through diverse cultures, mention the word "Olympics" and people know exactly what you are talking about. But the greatest potential of the Olympics, beyond athletes or competition, is the symbolism of the Games. In closing, let me share an example, one that is very personal.

Barbara Ann Scott and I share one of those very special symbolic moments from the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. It was the idea of Calgary Olympic Chairman Frank King. You may remember in December, 1987 Barbara Ann and Ferd Hayward carried the Olympic Torch the first kilometre of the cross-Canada run, down from Signal Hill in St. John's. Eighty-eight days later, Cathy Priestner and I carried that same torch on its final kilometre into McMahon Stadium in Calgary, where we passed the torch to a young aspiring Olympian by the name of Robin Perry who lit the Olympic Flame which marked the opening of the 15th Olympic Winter Games.

Over 88 days, linking every province and territory of Canada, including over 7,000 Canadians from every walk of life who carried the torch for one kilometre as it made the country-wide trip, the Olympic Torch was a symbol of celebration of what it is to be Canadian and of this vast, wonderful country we call home. But Frank King chose those key moments--the start of the journey, the end of the journey and the lighting of the flame as a symbolic passage--from Barbara Ann and Ferd as Olympians of the past, to Cathy and myself who are active within the Olympic movement today as Olympians present, to young Robin Perry representing Olympians of the future.

The Olympic Torch was a remarkable demonstration of how proud Canadians are of our country and of our athletes. It was a symbolic joining of hands. Next month, there won't be an Olympic Torch to symbolically link all of us to our Olympic Team in Lillehammer. I am convinced that the success of this team will strike a cord, ignite enthusiasm and make us proud.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

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Lillehammer '94—The Importance of the Olympics to Canada

Personal experiences as a skiier, and as a Canadian. What the Lillehammer Olympics mean to Canadians. The "Crazy Canuck" - what that used to mean and how the term evolved. Canadian athletic success. The decline of Canadian sports programmes. Solutions.