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In conversation with Bruce Kidd

The athlete, activist, and professor on his time at U of T, the Tokyo Olympics, and equity in sport
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Bruce Kidd is currently spending much of his time at U of T's libraries working on his memoir PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO SCARBOROUGH
Bruce Kidd is currently spending much of his time at U of T's libraries working on his memoir PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO SCARBOROUGH

This week, The Varsity got a chance to speak with former U of T track and field athlete, Lou Marsh award winner, academic, and author Bruce Kidd for an extensive chat about his experience and research, as well as current events in the sporting world. The Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education professor is currently on leave writing a memoir about his time as an athlete and sports activist. He spoke about the biggest inequities in sport today, and what led him to pursue research in this field.

The Varsity: What was your experience as a student athlete like? 

Bruce Kidd: I was very lucky to run at the time that I did, those being the last years of amateurism. I had an extraordinary experience as a U of T student, travelling around the world to run races and also studying with some amazing professors in political economy who were extremely supportive.

TV: You’ve been focusing a lot on activism and issues around equity, racism, and sexism in sport. Did you see that any sort of similar activism taking place when you were an athlete?

BK: My track and field career was an education in inequalities and inequities. I must admit that I didn’t see that for myself initially, but I had teammates who did. I mean, I was white and middle class at Canada’s best university, and thus highly privileged, but I had female and Black teammates who were not treated as well as I was. And they gradually educated me  on the double-standard. I came to see how unlevel the playing field was. So that was a process, over several years and several episodes. Fortunately I had teammates who took me aside and said, “It’s not like it is for you, for us.”

TV: What was the transition from being a student athlete to an academic like?

BK: Well, it was not my direct route. My memoir is in three parts. The first part is about my athletic career and my time at U of T as a student. The second part is about the transition. The roughly 10 years it took me to find my way into a tenured job here at the University of Toronto. Amateur sport in the ’50s, in the ’60s, encouraged you to prepare for another career; it encouraged that you not make sport your career, that you prepare yourself for other professions or a job in another way. It didn’t give you very many directions about that.

It took me living through a very interesting time in human history in the ’60s, for about 10 years, to figure out what I wanted to do. So that was the second part of my journey. I studied political economy as an undergraduate, and I thought I would go into law or into government.

The chair of political economy at the time encouraged me to write a book about government in sport. That led to a whole bunch of things that led me to begin teaching and doing research.

The head of the academic program in physical education said, “If our students are going to graduate and take jobs in this changing world, we need somebody to teach them about how governments are changing the face of sport and recreation.” He advertised a tenure-stream job for a faculty member to do just that. It’s hard to believe that I won that job. That became the beginning of the third part of my life, when I was teaching, writing, and intervening as an activist in sport policy and sport politics.

TV: What kind of perspective did being an athlete give you in your research?

BK: Well, that’s really interesting. I travelled around the world and I saw the differences between what was provided in Canada and in other countries. Those countries had way better facilities, way better support, way better encouragement for sport, for all. I’m thinking about my participation in the 1965 World Student Games in Budapest. Hungary was a very poor country. In 1965, you could see the evidence of both the Second World War and the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; many buildings were potholed with bullet holes.

There were difficult economic conditions, and yet they provided amazing sports facilities with free entry and great instruction. I remember saying to myself, “Jeez, if a poor country, just coming out of a dreadful experience with war and revolution, can provide these opportunities for its own people, why can’t a rich country like Canada?” Being able to travel and see what was provided in other countries motivated me. So that was one experience I had while I was an athlete that fueled my hunger and concern that this was happening in Canada.

TV: You spent a lot of your life working to eradicate sexism and racism in sports communities. What kind of change have you seen in Canada and abroad over kind of the past few decades, as long as you’ve been in academia? And what do you think are the biggest issues in equity in sports today?

BK: Well, great question. It is not an easy question, because the world is a very diverse place, and things have been changing, things can get better, and then they can go backward. Whether it’s gender equity, whether it’s racial justice, whether it’s the inclusion of persons with disabilities, persons with HIV or AIDS, or other marginalized groups. In some cases it’s gotten better, and in some cases it’s a bit of a roller coaster. But I would say that on a class basis, equal opportunities across populations have not gotten a lot better, and maybe they have gotten a lot worse over the last 40 or 50 years.

There’s far more effort to create gender equity. There has been a recent recognition, at least at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and in many countries, of the importance to protect LGBTQ+ athletes and to not only include them, but to welcome them in. There has been a huge improvement in opportunities for persons with disabilities with athletic ability. It’s not widespread through the population, but if you’re an athlete with a disability and you’re good, there’s way better opportunity now then there once was. So there’s been improvement. But everything has to be qualified.

It’s not everywhere. Tremendous class inequality remains. It’s a continual struggle. There have been several waves of improvements for girls and women in sport that have been slowed down or reversed. So we can’t assume that progress is automatic. These campaigns have to be continually refreshed and pushed.

TV: You’ve talked a lot about the neoliberalization of sport. Can you go into detail about what that means, and what impacts it’s had?

BK: The reigning orthodox today is that it should be the unrestricted market that determines life chances. That instead of government-led redistribution and improvement of opportunities, in fact one’s personal income and wealth should be allowed to determine the extent of opportunities. When you look at income levels and poverty in most countries, the improvements since the Second World War for 30 or 40 years have now been reversed. A related idea is that in the ’50s and ’60s, people looked to the government to provide opportunities and to improve them. Now the idea is the lowest taxes possible, and the leanest and meanest governments possible. I mean, that’s a huge generalization, but generally that’s what I mean by neoliberalism.

So, in any sport, if your parents can buy you memberships, coaching, facility time, summer camps, and so on, you’ll have a chance to do well in a sport that you want to pursue. If you come from an impoverished background or you live in a poor community, it’s both personal and community income that really tells. You don’t have much of a chance.

Do you know the name Gordie Howe? Well, Gordie Howe was arguably the greatest hockey player of my generation. One of my colleagues at Simon Fraser University, Rick Gruneau, recently published a paper that found that Gordie Howe could never make it to the NHL today. And the reason is not because he didn’t have ability, but because he grew up in a poor rural family. Today he would never have the opportunity to make it to the NHL because his parents could never have paid the entrance fees, the summer coaches, summer schools, equipment fees, travel fees, all of those kinds of things. So the class basis of even professional hockey has changed enormously over the last 30 years as a result of these larger changes that I’m talking about.

TV: Regarding Tokyo, what do you think about the Olympics possibly being cancelled or moved to next year due to the coronavirus? Are there any similarities to these sorts of issues that have happened before, like in Brazil with the Zika virus for example?

BK: Well, I think in Brazil, the IOC and the reorganizing committee monitor it very carefully. I was supposed to be in Tokyo right now. I know there’s a Canadian delegation meeting with the organizing committee as we speak. I didn’t go because of the coronavirus. I think people are watching it very carefully. The IOC is an affiliate organization of the United Nations. I know the World Health Organization is monitoring it very carefully. Dick Pound, who is the most senior IOC member, said this morning that given all of the logistic things, that decision is probably going to be made in the next two or three months.

So I think there are a lot of eyes on this, and people are going to try to do the right thing. I don’t think it can be moved elsewhere. I don’t even know whether it can be postponed a year. That is a legal, contractual, economic thing. There’s such a full calendar of events in 2021 that it might not be possible. It’s a very, very complicated and important issue, and all of us are going to be anxiously awaiting the judgment of the people involved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.