How a top athlete was snubbed while journalists carried the torch

Journalists shouldn’t carry the Olympic torch, writes former Globe and Mail sports columnist William Houston, especially when media personalities like Ben Mulroney and Sandie Rinaldo take spots away from great Olympians.

I’ve written periodically about CTVglobemedia’s moronic decision to have its journalists and broadcasters participate in the IOC torch relay. As a follow-up, I strongly recommend Randy Starkman’s Feb. 1 blog post in the Toronto Star.

Just to state my position: It is inappropriate for journalists to carry the Olympic torch, particularly those who will be in Vancouver covering the Games. It’s inappropriate because these people, by running with the flame, are participating in a marketing exercise that promotes a business enterprise, the Olympics, which they will be expected to objectively report on. How can you help hype an event one moment and then be expected to give an honest and independent assessment of it the next?

By email a few months ago, Tom Jolly, the sports editor of The New York Times, told me his paper would never allow its journalists to carry the Olympic torch. The Globe and Mail obviously thought otherwise. It assigned several of its journalists to the relay. In total, CTVglobemedia, which owns the Globe and CTV, had 27 broadcasters and journalists running with the torch. One of them explained his/her feelings about it this way: He/she didn’t want to do it, but held his/her nose and got it done. “Luckily, there was nobody along the road to see me,” the person said.

The only way participating in the relay can be justified journalistically – and even then it’s a pretty lame argument – is to do it to produce a first person account of the experience. But what makes the experience exceptional? You’re on a road, you’re carrying a torch, there may or may not be people along the way watching you on, and then it’s over. Of the Globe’s writers, the only one who wrote about the experience, columnist Gary Mason, described it as “strangely wonderful.”

There’s another reason why journalists should not be in the relay. They take spots away from more deserving people. As Starkman noted, Kerrin Lee-Gartner is the only Canadian to win the Olympic downhill event. It was in 1992 at Albertville. She’s from British Columbia, the province in which the Olympics are being held, and she lives in Calgary. She was an obvious choice to carry the torch, right? Well, no. She didn’t make the cut. But people such as CTV’s Ben Mulroney and Sandie Rinaldo did.

After the Vancouver Sun ran a story reporting on the number of Olympians overlooked for the relay, VANOC head John Furlong contacted Lee-Gartner and said the organizing committee would try to fit her in for Feb. 11, the day before the start of the Games. He said he would get back to her on Jan. 29. He never did.

So, there you go. Ben, Sandie and all the others get to carry the torch. A great Olympian gets fobbed off.

(This column was originally published at Truth & Rumours.)

UPDATE: Lee-Garnter was eventually contacted by Olympic organizers (after the Vancouver Sun article ran), but they weren’t able to find a time that worked for both sides, Randy Starkman reported in the Toronto Star on Feb. 7. Gartner said, “It really didn’t work because it was too last minute and I sure wasn’t going to take that torch out of someone else’s hands. It felt like they were trying to sneak me in.”

William Houston wrote primarily about hockey during his first 10 years at The Globe and Mail. In 1990, he started writing the “Truth and Rumours” column, which focused largely on the sports media. It was a part of the Globe’s sports section for 19 years. After retiring, he resumed Truth & Rumours as a blog in October, 2009.