Sunday, September 20, 2009

Able, Agile, Athletic Aboriginals!!

CANADA's OLYMPIC TEAM - All Aboriginal?


Throughout Canada's history, there have been a number of experiments done on aboriginal people. For example, in the early 1970's, a group of Inuit boys from Northern Quebec were sent to Ottawa to see how they would cope in an urban setting. Another experiment took place in BC where a group of First Nations children were given candy to simply see how their teeth would react without brushing. Guess how that one resulted?


While most experiments turned out negative, a much more positive experiment took place in the late sixties in the Western Arctic. A Catholic priest in Inuvik, NT had noticed how strong and agile the aboriginal people were when they were hunting and gathering on the land. As a former cross-country ski racer, the priest had proposed a program called, "Territorial Experimental Ski Training" (TEST) program and secured funding from the government. Furthermore,  the perfect venue to develop talented kids was there in the former residential school where 400 Inuit, Metis, and First Nations students were residing. A Norwegian coach was then hired. Like they say, "the rest is history."


Fred Kelly, "the Kelly Express."

The boys and girls picked to train and race quickly made an impact nationally and internationally. Fred Kelly, known as the "Kelly Express" won the men's 1968 national junior championships and the likes of a Roger Allen, Rex Cockney, Ernie Lennie, Bert Bullock combined to win individual and relay races across North America. The team also toured Europe where they not only made an impact racing against skiing nations but were somewhat of an attraction being referred to as "Indians and Eskimos on skis."


Their success resulted in six of the nine members representing Canada at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics were aboriginal. Not bad for skiing just a few years. Likely the most famous of that team were the Firth Twins, Sharon and Shirley. For two decades they dominated the Canadian women's cross-country skiing scene. From 1972 to 1984 they represented Canada in four consecutive Winter Olympics; a streak only equaled by speed skating legend Gaetan Boucher. To accomplish that remarkable feat, they overcame prejudice, sickness, despair and rejection.  For Shirley the 1972 Olympic dream almost didn't become a reality. Just before Sapporo, she came down with hepatitis. The disease almost took her life. Shirley overcame the disease and made it to Sapporo. But she was just too weak to be competitive. Sharon finished a Canadian-best 24th overall. It was a solid result for a team that had only been skiing for a few years.


TEST Skiers with former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau

Although the experiment with those aboriginal athletes was deemed a success, the funding was cut, just when a second generation of hopefuls were beginning to show promise. Just goes to show that Aboriginal people do have ability....too bad given their current social and political situation, they lack opportunity.