Olympic-style drama mixed with physically disabled athletic triumphs in Etobicoke.
“We hope to show that it is ability and not disability that really counts,” observed Dr. Robert Jackson during the early preparations for the 1976 Olympiad for the Physically Disabled. “Once an employer realizes an athlete can race a mile in a wheelchair in just over six minutes he is more willing to accept that the same individual is capable of coming to work and putting in a full eight-hour day.”
Such sentiments inspired the organizers of the complementary athletic competition to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. The week-long “Torontolympiad” brought similar dramas to Etobicoke’s Centennial Park: athletic glory, defections from the Soviet bloc, financial woes, and political boycotts.
Jackson was an orthopaedic consultant to the Canadian Olympic team in Tokyo in 1964 when he stayed to watch the second official edition of what we now call the Summer Paralympics. The games evolved from competitions designed by Sir Ludwig Guttmann to aid war veterans with spinal cord injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England. The games opened up to non-veterans in 1960 and were held following the Summer Olympics in Rome (though the 1960 and 1964 Paralympics were held in Olympic host cities, this wasn’t the norm until Seoul in 1988). Noting the lack of Canadian competitors with disabilities in Tokyo, Jackson dedicated himself to promoting physically disabled athletics at home. He considered Canada’s first entry into international competition at the Wheelchair Games in Winnipeg following the 1967 Pan-American Games as his personal “centennial” project.
Jackson chaired the organizing committee which brought the 1976 Olympiad for the Physically Disabled (as the Paralympics were officially known) to the Toronto area. By fall 1973, Etobicoke’s Centennial Park was secured as a site, with Etobicoke mayor Dennis Flynn promising to have a $4 million gym/pool complex ready for the games. Metro Toronto council agreed to kick in $500,000 of the $2-million budget, which would be matched by the federal and provincial governments.
As 1976 dawned, all looked well. Etobicoke delivered its promised facility, dubbed the Olympium. The Ontario Jockey Club donated the use of Woodbine Racetrack for the opening ceremony scheduled for August 3. The games would mark the first time competition was opened to blind athletes and amputees. But global politics reared its head. In November 1975, Canada co-authored a United Nations resolution condemning apartheid in South Africa. When games officials insisted on allowing a racially integrated South African squad to compete on the grounds of humanitarianism and athletic spirit, Ottawa pulled its funding in March 1976. Angered by the unexpected $500,000 shortfall, games financial chair Jim McMahon didn’t mince words: “To hell with the federal government.” Private donations and ticket sales were expected to pick up the slack.
The feds’ lack of support went further. Citing provisions against moral support of events involving South Africa, the Department of National Defence withheld its band from the opening ceremony. The Department of Transport cancelled a luggage transportation service from Pearson Airport. Refusal to pay nearly $55,000 to bring Canadian athletes to Etobicoke was resolved when Queen’s Park picked up the tab. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declined to serve as official games patron—his duties were passed on to Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon.
The province remained committed to its financial contribution, while Metro Council debated its share. Toronto alderman John Sewell protested that the South African government used its team for propaganda. Despite the opposition of Scarborough mayor Paul Cosgrove and five of Sewell’s peers from the City of Toronto (notably Dan Heap, William Kilbourn, and Colin Vaughan), Metro’s $500,000 grant was re-approved.
Newspaper editorials supported the games, noting Ottawa’s inconsistent application of its anti-apartheid policy. The consistent complaint was that politics should not be brought into a competition for athletes with disabilities. With hindsight, naive defences were made on behalf of South Africa, such as Jackson’s belief that the integrated team was “striving to improve the lot of non-whites just as much as anyone.” Not all participating countries agreed: echoing the boycott by 28 countries of the Montreal games due to a South African tour by New Zealand’s rugby team, Kenya and Yugoslavia pulled out in late July.
At least they made their decision before sending athletes to Etobicoke. That was not the case with Jamaica, which announced its withdrawal on the eve of the opening ceremony. The team went to Woodbine, but sat in the stands instead of parading in with other countries. The Jamaicans were allowed to stay and participate in social activities.
Other athletes were busy checking into the games. Modified school buses transported competitors from Pearson to York University for registration. Athletes who were paraplegic were housed on campus, while the other athletes stayed downtown at the University of Toronto. The 67-member Israeli team, based on fears stemming from the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, were housed in a hotel under heavy security.
Despite the political issues, and the non-appearance of teams from India, Sudan, and Uganda, organizers were pleased when 19,000—nearly double the projected figure—attended the opening ceremony on August 3. Guttmann and Jackson touched on the political circus in their speeches, determined not to let it cause further damage. “I really feel badly for the athletes,” Jackson observed. “It’s too bad when all we wanted was to make sure that black South African athletes have their chance to compete with everyone else.” Guttman noted that “in the world of the disabled we are used to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.” The crowd cheered each delegation and their colorful outfits, ranging from paper lanterns carried by the Japanese to a Mexican team decked out in sombreros and orange track suits.
Competition began the next day. One of Canada’s first gold medals was awarded to 80-year-old lawn bowler Percy Lymn. A long-time member of the Etobicoke Lawn Bowling Club, the retired Toronto Hydro field manager’s impressive athletic resume stretched back to playing on champion amateur baseball teams during the 1920s. Lymn’s vision diminished to five per cent after hitting his head during a fall four years earlier. He withdrew from lawn bowling competitions after losing his vision, but was encouraged by club members to enter the Olympiad. Guided by a coach, Lymn qualified for the competition by winning two gold medals earlier that summer at the Canada Games for the Physically Disabled. Lymn was modest about his talent, telling the Etobicoke Gazette that lawn bowling was “about 60 per cent luck and 40 per cent skill.” When he received his medal, the recording of “O Canada” ran into technical problems. Spectators and fellow athletes spontaneously sang our national anthem.
Stories like Lymn’s, along with the high calibre of competition, boosted attendance. Like the opening ceremony, events attracted double the anticipated audience. Booths ran out of tickets. Some fans felt the admission charges, which ranged from $1 for a child’s day admission to $25 for a week-long adult pass, were too low and paid extra. Using a Canada-USA basketball match as an example, an editorial in the Etobicoke Guardian showed how eye-opening the games could be:
At first it was curiosity, as in watching a circus act, or more bluntly a freak show. Then it was intrigue at the abilities of the men to play the game. The only difference was that they had wheels for legs. Then it was a true sports fan watching a match between two nations and cheering madly for his home country.
Extensive media coverage also helped ticket sales. “If at first the media lent the organizers a hand out of sympathy,” Sun sports editor George Gross noted, “later on they were just doing their job—reporting on exciting sports events, human interest stories, tales about human courage and dedication.” Whole pages of sports sections were dedicated to the games. After CTV and Global declined to televise the Olympiad, a consortium of cable providers covered the events.
The media continued to watch the continuing controversies around the South African team. It was apparent the integrated team was anything but, as black and white competitors kept to their own. They stayed in separate tents, and sat on different sides of the field during matches. South African officials claimed this was due to language differences, but nobody bought that line. Some Canadian officials wondered if Jackson might have gone too far in defending the team’s participation.
Countries continued to drop out in protest. After the second day of competition, the Cuban team vacated their York dorm rooms, followed by Hungary and Poland. Olympiad director Steve Posen was blunt in criticizing the boycotters:
These countries that are pulling out so late are no better than whores. They all knew in advance about South Africa and if they wanted to protest they should have done it much earlier. To let their athletes train and train and get their hopes up on coming or to let them get here and then yank them back like puppets without any regard for their feelings is terribly shabby treatment.
For Hungary and Poland, South Africa proved a convenient excuse for departure when defections were a better explanation. Sometime between 11 p.m. on August 5 and 2 a.m. on August 6, Hungarian representative Imre Szelenyi, who had registered to compete in 100 m track, javelin, slalom, and table tennis, wheeled himself out of his York dorm. He flagged down a taxi, which was driven by a Hungarian émigré. Szelenyi was taken to the nearest police station, where he contacted immigration officials. Hungary pulled out the next day. As for Poland, they lost amputee shot-putter Stefania Chwedoruk when she defected after being stunned by a well-stocked Polish butcher shop at Westway Plaza.
The atmosphere around boycotts was such that when the Australian men’s basketball team missed its first morning game, it was assumed the Aussies had pulled out. It turned out they thought the game was that evening. Such confusion wasn’t unusual, thanks to limited distribution of schedules (each team received a single master copy) and a malfunctioning computer. “The disabled athletes are doing OK,” one observer noted. “It’s the able bodied organizers who are messing things up.”
There was no confusion when Australian Eric Russell declined to accept a gold medal on August 5. Having just set a world record in wheelchair discus, Russell protested the ongoing political shenanigans when he spoke from the podium. “We have enough of a common bond in our disabilities without governments bringing politics into it,” he stated, noting that his anger was directed at all governments.
Away from the politics, the athletes generally enjoyed themselves. They shared stories at the beer garden, where they also enjoyed treats like exclusive performances by jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Some took advantage of day trips to Niagara Falls. Competition ended early one evening so that international participants could celebrate with their respective communities throughout Metro Toronto. Humanity showed through during competitions; following a swimming race, Egyptian and Israeli competitors shook hands in front of the cameras—a rare sight at the time.
The closing ceremony at Centennial Park on August 11 had its hiccups. No definite starting time was set, as it was scheduled to follow medal presentations for the basketball final. Athletes milled around the park entrance, with some deciding to head back to their residences. The announcer inexplicably halted the closing procession, creating a bottleneck. Dignitaries made cringeworthy, self-congratulatory speeches. “I wanted to cry,” a member of the organizing committee told the Globe and Mail. “The athletes were the heroes of these Games and nobody on the podium gave them any recognition for their heroic achievements.”
Canada came fifth in total medals with 77, behind the United States (155), West Germany (96), Great Britain (94), and the Netherlands (84). A fundraising campaign was held to recoup the lingering shortfall, where donors received a commemorative medal for giving $5, a commemorative plate for $50. Though the Soviet Union was expected to hold the next games in 1980, no representatives attended. The games were then awarded to Arnheim in the Netherlands. Organizers were spared the headaches Etobicoke endured when South Africa was barred from participating. They wouldn’t return until the post-apartheid era.
When international physically disabled athletic competition returns to the GTA next year with the Parapan American Games, at least one Olympiad venue will be utilized. The Olympium is currently undergoing renovations in preparation for its use as a training facility. Perhaps some 1976 Paralympians will drop in to watch the inheritors of their legacy.
Additional material from A Time to Be Together: Torontolympiad 1976 (Toronto: 1976 Olympiad for the Physically Disabled, 1977); the July 29, 1976 and August 12, 1976 editions of the Etobicoke Gazette; the August 11, 1976 edition of the Etobicoke Guardian; the September 3, 1973, March 13, 1975, April 7, 1976, May 20, 1976, August 4, 1976, August 5, 1976, August 7, 1976, August 9, 1976, August 10, 1976, and August 12, 1976 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 8, 1974, August 6, 1976, and August 26, 1976 editions of the Toronto Star.