An unusual showdown: one of Canada’s best writers gets bested by one of Canada’s top athletes – in the national newspaper.
Cathal Kelly: Canada’s top sportswriter
In a piece published by his employer, The Globe & Mail’s effervescent sports columnist Cathal Kelly wrote last week on the sad saga of baseball’s disgraced Alex Rodriguez – “a great athlete and a person of low character,” as Kelly puts it. Kelly outlines how A-Rod cheated by doing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), got caught, then lied about it, tarnishing his reputation and his legacy forever.
And then Kelly says that he would do exactly the same thing.
And then – saying he doesn’t care much one way or the other – he claims that “the vast majority of professional athletes have done banned substances at some point in their careers.” Kelly cheerfully admits he makes this assumption with no evidence.
As the Globe’s comments section shows, Kelly’s article struck a chord with sports fans (as all good writing should). Most commenters were put off by what they saw as the cynicism of Kelly’s position – that most serious athletes would (and do) cheat to win, and that most regular folks would do the same if given the same choice.
Kelly’s article (though more controversial than most of his typically sound fare) and its associated comments might have sunk quickly beneath the inexorable tide of journalism du jour, were it not for a swift, sound rebuttal from an unlikely source: Canadian Olympic kayak star Adam van Koeverden.
Canada’s Olympic flag bearer Adam van Koeverden
Van Koeverden eloquently takes on Kelly in a followup article, also run by the Globe. The four-time Olympic medallist challenges the columnist on his “hollow attempt to justify performance-enhancing drug use in sport.” To Kelly’s stated interest in “hearing from those (athletes) who faced the choice,” van Koeverden responds simply that he has never used PEDs to further his own career, and takes issue with Kelly’s assertion that athletes are entertainers – arguing instead that they are competitors, and that viewing them as entertainers is dangerous for many reasons.
Van Koeverden then takes the cheating analogy outside sports, applying it to other vocations. “How far would a journalist go to achieve their goals?” he demands. “Is it okay to plagiarize for a Pulitzer Prize? Lie for a front page? Misquote someone for a racy exposé?”
Point taken. Though Best Player is undeniably a Kelly fan, here we’re siding with van Koeverden. Cheating is cheating; and it’s no good in the boardroom, in the classroom, or in the stadium. To argue otherwise is to undercut cynically whatever moral code we try to hold ourselves to, or to expect from our leaders and heroes, or to do our best to teach our children. To accept that cheating is endemic, even expected, is to take the low view of human nature. Maybe we’re naive, but we prefer to believe that most people – and most athletes – would do as van Koeverden has done, and take the high road.
In his A-Rod article, Cathal Kelly has once again done his job masterfully: he has galvanized the community of fans and athletes around a sports issue that transcends the mere scoreline. He has spurred a necessary debate. Nobody writing in Canada today consistently elevates the discussion above the playing field as often or as thoughtfully as he does.
And in crafting his response, Adam van Koeverden has again distinguished himself as not just one of the country’s top athletes (hey, he’s been doing that for 15 years), but also – again – as one of our most eloquent spokesmen for the ideals behind why we compete in the first place, why we value honesty, and why we should look for the same qualities in our heroes as we should strive to find in ourselves.