Local author looks back on 1980 Olympic boycott
Sheila Hurtig Robertson is quick not to compare herself to the 212 Canadian Olympic athletes who lost their opportunity to compete on the world’s biggest athletic stage 32 years ago.
But she’s best suited to relate to them.
The veteran author and Thunder Bay native’s latest book, Shattered Hopes: Canada’s Boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, was released earlier this year.
As a former media relations agent for the Canadian team, Robertson was there to witness how the boycott unfolded.
“I knew firsthand many of the stories, so that was a compelling reason to do the book,” the 71-year-old Robertson said in a recent phone interview with The Chronicle-Journal from her current home outside Ottawa.
Shattered Hopes examines the history of the boycott and how a handful of athletes reacted to not being able to compete. The book includes essays from Canadian figures — both administrative and athletic — who express their thoughts on the boycott and what it meant for them to miss the Games.
In December of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in a move that led the United States to declare they would not send a team to the Moscow Games the following July. Over 60 countries followed the Americans’ lead, including Canada.
Many athletes would find glory again four years later in Los Angeles. One Olympian, equestrian rider Ian Millar, would go on to compete at the next nine Games, including the one in London which opens today.
Others, however, had reached their athletic peak in 1980 and would not qualify again.
“I really believe this is part of Canadian history that was swept under the carpet and few people are aware of it,” Robertson said. “It set us back for years. I think it’s very important that people know what happen and the effect it had on so many people.”
There were several athletes from the 1980 team from or with links to Thunder Bay, including wrestlers Steve Daniar, Brian Renken, Clive Llewellyn, wrestling coach Glynn Leshon, basketball player Jim Zoet, kayaker Sue Holloway, swimmer Bill Sawchuk and rower Kim Gordon.
Llewellyn, Holloway, Sawchuk and Gordon are four of the 27 former athletes or coaches given pages in Shattered Hopes detailing their experiences with the boycott.
Without a doubt, going over the loss of the Games with some athletes through interviews was one of Robertson’s biggest challenges.
“You can hear the pain in their voice. I was asking them to relive something that was very painful,” she said.
Another of those forced to sit was Vancouver-born swimmer Bruce Robertson, Sheila’s husband.
“I would never put myself in the shoes of the athletes or the coaches,” Sheila Robertson said. “That would be presumptuous. I hadn’t put in the same effort or the years and years. I’m empathic. (Being married to Bruce), I know what it takes and have an understanding at what had been lost.”
Talk of a major boycott doesn’t seem possible these days. Robertson said the 1980 boycott was about “the temper of the times. . . .
“This was the Cold War period. There as a lot of anti Soviet feeling.”
“I’m a little concerned about situation with Syria and Russia’s support,” she added, looking ahead to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. “It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on what happens with the Sochi Games.”
Robertson held a similar role with the Canadian team at the 1996 Games in Atlanta as manager of the team media office, but has not been involved at that level since. The Port Arthur Collegiate high school graduate is still active in the media. In addition to her books, she is the editor of the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching.
Her next book project will be about homeless women in the Ottawa area.
On the web: http://sheilarobertson.iguanabooks.com