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Playing for change: Bruce Kidd, sport and “the long struggle against barriers”

“Probably the strongest narrative to describe the history of sport in my view is the long struggle against barriers,” says Professor Bruce Kidd, principal of University of Toronto Scarborough and former Olympian,

The first time Bruce Kidd attempted to retire, his friends and colleagues organized a symposium to celebrate his achievements as a scholar, athlete and activist.

Kidd famously didn't retire, going on to become UTSC’s principal, but his colleagues and friends didn't stay idle either. Many of the academic papers given at the symposium were compiled in a book dedicated to Kidd, fittingly called: Playing for change; the continuing struggle for sport and recreation. 

The book was edited by Kidd’s former doctoral student Russell Field, who is now assistant professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba. This week, Field joined Kidd at the launch of the book at Massey College. Celebrating along with them were professor Peter Donnelly of U of T's Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, one of the many contributors to the book, KPE’s acting dean Gretchen Kerr and many other colleagues and friends. 

Professor Kidd spoke to writer Jelena Damjanovic about the book, the importance of sports for social change and the role of Universities in promoting opportunities and access to physical activity for all. 


How does it feel to have a book dedicated to you?
I’m very honoured by this. I was deeply moved by this project when it began as a conference when I tried to retire a number of years ago and I’m just delighted that it has been brought to fruition. I’m very much appreciative of the efforts of Rosanne Lopers-Sweetman, chief administrative officer at KPE, and Russell Field in particular to bring it to this point.

Why does sport matter so much to so many people around the world?
A measure of why it matters is that it has become the most accessible and most visible form of popular culture today. It gives the individuals who do it extraordinary experiences that touch on every aspect of their being. These experiences can be enjoyable, produce moments of learning and insight, and create bonds or they can be horrible, but whether they’re joyful or horrible, they’re meaningful. And secondly, the performances of the best athletes are in most human societies, in particular our own, richly symbolic. They’ve come to speak for places, groups of people and ideas. We take outstanding athletes to represent countries, universities, genders, sexual orientations. We confer upon athletes enormous symbolic powers. 

What role can universities play in the promotion and accessibility of fitness and physical activity opportunities in communities? How is U of T doing in this regard?
As universities, we conduct research, we teach and we’re involved in the community. On the basis of research, we advocate for social change. I think on the whole we do that very well. Some of the research in the faculty has contributed both historically and in recent years to making physical activity safer and better understood. The Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education has turned out some outstanding graduates, who are doing some tremendous things at all levels of Canadian sport and physical activity.

In terms of the co-curricular programs, U of T gives its students rewarding opportunities. I’d like to think we give them habits and knowledge about themselves and physical activity that they can pursue for a lifetime. I also think we have a number of important projects that involve the community, starting with Camp U of T at Junior Blues and other partnerships, so I think U of T does a good job.

What do you think of sport as a platform for human rights issues?
I think both in terms of the symbolic power of sport and the values of sport, sport offers avenues for the promotion of human rights. In modern sport as we know it, the values were always that it was a level playing field and everybody had an equal chance to do well. And of course, in the 19th century and for much of the 20th, and even today, that value was contradicted by the reality that many people were barred from playing either by outright, overt discrimination or by systemic discrimination. That contradiction provided an opportunity for activists and people who were excluded to raise the equity flag. So, sport provided a ready arena for human rights campaigns. 

At the same time, given the symbolic power of sport, as representatives of groups that were being discriminated against or underrepresented got a chance to play, some of these outstanding people became the embodied champions of equity: the first outstanding woman, the first outstanding lesbian, the first outstanding black man, the first outstanding First Nations person. People would say they don’t deserve to play and yet you’d see these extraordinary athletes that would excite you and so they symbolically raised the cry of justice. 

Probably the strongest narrative to describe the history of sport in my view is the long struggle against barriers. One by one people fought in a complicated variety of ways to break these barriers down across the world within societies. It’s an extraordinary story. At every age you had struggles around human rights and equity. And because of the visibility of sport, they’ve given support to other struggles, too. They’ve given visibility to the need for human rights.

What did you think of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Games?
I think they were a terrific success and a spectacular success for the University of Toronto. In addition to the facilities the university got on the St. George and UTSC campuses, it gave us a chance to really express the broader Olympic ideal. The games brought exciting competition. It gave many of us a chance to learn way more about the Americas than we ever had before and so gave reality to the idea of intercultural education. I think we can be very proud of how we celebrated the Pan Am Games.

What do you think are the values that should inform big sport competitions, like the Pan Am Games or the Olympics? Do you think they’ve changed since you competed in the 1964 Olympics?
My experience was formed by two ideas. One is the pursuit of the very, very best, the idea of excellence, the idea of being the best you can be and then the best in the world. The other idea was that sport is part of an international culture and that although you compete fiercely against other people, you are culturally at one with them. Olympians should devote themselves to both – to strengthen the opportunity for the pursuit of excellence and to strengthen the opportunity for the whole world to be part of a joined effort to communicate a culture of humanity.

My own experience is that the pendulum in the Olympics has swung to the pursuit of the podium – to the neglect of the other values that the Olympic movement holds dear. There continues to be the extraordinary support for the pursuit of excellence, but I think the humanitarian ideal is no longer given the attention it deserves and that really troubles me.