Guest Commentary

Jack Layton, In Memoriam


(Editor’s note: Then-Opposition Leader Jack Layton on February 15, 2011 spoke with Blacklock’s editor Tom Korski about boyhood days as a competitive swimmer in Hudson, Que. Layton spoke of victory, defeat and values learned from sport. Three months after the interview Layton led New Democrats to 103 seats in the Commons. In six months he was dead of cancer. Following are his remarks)

I swam in my first national championship in 1962, in Dorval. I was 12. I seemed like a fish in water, up and down the lanes, a thousand lengths a week. I loved the feel of the water, the flat-out exertion that goes with it, the competition, the joy of the friendships. It was a great way to meet girls.

There’s nothing like being in a race up against somebody right beside you. Often you’re racing against your best friends, for heaven’s sake. It teaches you the whole concept of sportsmanship.

I didn’t win every time. You learn from that: work harder, keep at it. You learn values, no question, all those hours I spent in the pool.

At age 12 I held the national age-group record in the backstroke. I was swimming at the Montreal Amateur Athletics Association at that time. Later someone measured the pool and found it was a half-inch shorter than everybody thought it was. All the records we held were wiped out. I had to laugh. It was a 20-yard pool and I missed it by half an inch, a miniscule amount.

In 1966 I made the Québec team and was prepared to go to the national championships but ended up getting sick, on antibiotics. I couldn’t really perform at my level. I never became a professional athlete but competitive swimming was a huge part of my upbringing.

I swam at McGill in 1967 and was captain of the water polo team at York University. The whole concept of team – I emphasize this all the time with my caucus. It was the first thing I said when I was elected leader: “Okay, the two guiding concepts are team and respect.” Those are values you learn as a kid growing up in sports.

You win and lose. It’s very much like that in politics, too. Look at the number of people who run for office. There’s a lot more people who lose than win. Most of us have careers where we lost along the way as well. There is no question that learning to lose gracefully inspires you to look inside yourself. What do I have to do to win next time?

I’ve been in business and academia and community activity. Certainly my experience in sports was helpful. I actually wrote a paper about this when I was studying political science, a long time ago. I analyzed some of the formative influences on my career, and it came back to very, very active engagement in sports.

I mean, you spend so many hours working with a team. It had a hugely positive impact on me. I have no doubt it prepared me for the cut and thrust of political life. I think water polo is the best analogy. Up above the water it’s all smiles; everybody is smiling at the referee. But under the surface, it’s a little different.

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