Us Versus Them: Canadian Newspaper Coverage of the 1997 One-to-One Challenge of Champions

By Elyse Amend

About the author

Elyse Amend is an MA student in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University. 7141 Sherbrooke St. West, CJ-3.245, Montreal, Quebec, H4B 1R6, elysera@yahoo.com

Abstract

This research examines how notions of Canadian nationality, specifically expressed as anti-Americanism, emerged in newspaper coverage of the 1997 One-to-One Challenge of Champions between Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey and the American Michael Johnson. As well, the research addresses how sports and nationalism are linked and, in this instance, are connected to Canadian identity. This research examines all news articles, editorials and other items written about the June 1, 1997 One-to-One Challenge of Champions in four major Canadian English- and French-language newspapers from January 1 to December 31, 1997. Textual analysis helped identify re-occurring words, phrases, and narratives that represented either anti-American or pro-Canadian themes.

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Introduction

On June 1, 1997, Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey and American sprinter Michael Johnson faced off in a 150-metre race at Toronto’s SkyDome.  Billed as the One-to-One Challenge of Champions, the race would determine who would become known as the world’s fastest man. This race had its genesis in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, when Bailey won the gold medal in the 100-metre sprint, while Johnson took first place in both the 200-metre and 400-metre races. Following the races, several American television shows and print and broadcast advertisements dubbed Johnson  “the world’s fastest man,” an unofficial title that typically goes to the winner of the 100-metre race. This sparked a highly publicized rivalry between Bailey and Johnson, leading to the June 1, 1997, showdown between the two men in Toronto. This research examines how notions of Canadian nationality, specifically expressed as anti-Americanism, emerged in the coverage of this sporting event. As well, the research addresses how sports and nationalism are linked and, in this instance, are connected to Canadian identity.

Literature Review

David Archard (1995) has argued that “national myths are neither fables nor allegories” but instead are “intended to be believed in their presented form and for what they actually claim to have been the case. . . .  They are deeply rooted within popular cultures, and insofar as they do serve important practical purposes, they will continue to be accepted as true” (Archard, 1995, pp. 475-78).  Nationalism and sport are closely linked, since nations often use sport as a way to enhance their images of themselves from within and outside of their borders. Within national borders, sports can “compensate for other aspects of life,” allowing nations to ignore current conditions (Hargreaves, 1992, as cited in Bairner, 2001, pp. 17-18).  For many nations, sport plays a central role in society by exemplifying social values, creating a “vehicle of identity” and offering a way to contrast oneself and one’s national identity with others” (MacClancey, 1996, p. 2). Outside their borders, sport offers nations the chance to improve international standing. The Olympic Games, as Andrew C. Billings (2008) argued, offer countries the chance to increase their political standing and turn their athletes into national icons.

Canada has a long history of anti-American sentiment, which is often characterized by a “we are not them” or “they are not us” distinction. According to Brian Bow (2008), anti-American sentiment in Canada has strong historical roots, but the main component is “differentiation” (Bow, 2008, p. 342).  The two countries have so much in common, and the way that Canadians juxtapose themselves as different from Americans  plays a large role in the creation of national identity,  “group cohesion” and a “positive collective self-image,” (Bow, 2008. p. 342). Similarly, Jennifer MacLennan, using Norman Fairclough’s concept of “anti-language,” argues that for Canadians, being un-American provides a way to renounce American influence so that Canadians can maintain their own set of values (MacLennan, 2007, p. 19). In The Imaginary Canadian, Tony Wilden (1980) argues that Canadians’ viewing themselves as different from Americans plays a central role in the construction of Canadian social values and the “imagined” Canadian identity.

He writes: “. . . the quality called ‘Canadian’ is being defined as subordinate to the quality called ‘American.’ The Imaginary code of ‘national identity’ that is being (unconsciously) used in this pathological relation to the dominant and dominating Other is a code constructed out of whatever it is that ‘American’ comes to stand for in any particular time and place” (Wilden, 1980, p. 118). In terms of sport, “othering” offers a perfect opportunity for Canadians to express national identity so that they may ideologically repel “the hegemonic tendencies of American culture” (Bairner, 2001, p. 120).

Method

This research examined news articles, editorials and other items written about the June 1, 1997 One-to-One Challenge of Champions in four major Canadian English- and French-language newspapers. The period under study began January 1, 1997 and ended December 31, 1997. The Canadian Newsstand database on Proquest was used to retrieve items in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and The Gazette, while BiblioBranché/Eureka was used to retrieve articles from La Presse. The four newspapers were chosen for the following reasons: the Globe and Mail was chosen because it was Canada’s only national newspaper at the time. The Toronto Star was selected because the event took place at Toronto’s SkyDome.  Also, Donovan Bailey is a resident of Oakville, Ontario, which is part of the Greater Toronto Area. The Gazette was chosen because it was one of Canada’s major daily newspapers at the time, read mainly by Quebec’s anglophone population. Finally, La Presse was selected in order to reflect French-language coverage of the race.  The data set comprised 292 items, including news stories, columns and opinion pieces, one editorial, and letters to the editor. Textual analysis was used to identify recurring words, phrases, and narratives that represented anti-American or pro-Canadian themes. This analysis aimed to obtain understanding of the ways in which Canadians made “sense of the world around them” (McKee, 2003, p. 1) in the context of this sporting event. As Alan McKee wrote (2003): “And, importantly, by seeing the variety of ways in which it is possible to interpret reality, we also understand our own cultures better because we can start to see the limitations and advantages of our own sense-making practices” (McKee, 2003, p. 1).

The articles were analyzed using three discrete categories: (1) articles written leading up to the race; (2) coverage of the race itself; and (3) coverage and commentary on Donovan Bailey’s comments about Michael Johnson.  At the 110-metre mark of the race, with Bailey ahead, Johnson suffered an injury to his quadriceps muscle and lost. In a CBC television interview immediately following the race, Bailey mocked Johnson and questioned the validity of his injury by saying: “He didn’t pull up at all. He’s just a chicken. I think what he should do is that—we should run this race all over again so that I can kick his ass one more time” (Sellar, 1997, B2). Bailey apologized for his comments in the days following the race.

Findings

Coverage leading up to the race

Much of the language in the four newspapers analyzed displayed a battle-like or war-like tone when speaking about the lead-up to the competition between Bailey and Johnson. For example, the words “showdown,” “duel,” and “rivals” or “rivalry” were repeatedly used in English-language coverage to describe the competition. In the same vein, La Presse often used the word “duel” to describe the race, and referred to the antagonism between Bailey and Johnson as a “guerre verbale” (“war of words”) and a “bataille des personnalités” (“battle of personalities” or “battle of characters”) (La Presse, 1997b, S10 and La Presse, 1997a,  S2). The war-like sentiment, especially the Canadian-versus-American angle, can be identified in the following excerpt from a letter to the editor in the Globe and Mail:

“…It is reminiscent of the practice of duelling and the bullfight. That said, I hope Bailey wins, if only to squelch U.S. arrogance.  I prefer the more understated strain of Canadian arrogance” (Cook, 1997, C11).

Coverage of the race

Expressions of Canadian patriotism were evident in newspaper coverage, especially in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, chiefly through the descriptions of the atmosphere at the Toronto SkyDome and through the quotes used to portray spectator reactions. The June 2, 1997 Globe and Mail article headlined, “Bailey confirms his title genuine: Johnson pulls up with injured leg,noted that “Bailey’s every appearance was greeted by cheers and flag waving, while Johnson, cast in the role of American villain, was roundly booed, even when he was shown on the big screen lying down in his dressing room” (Brunt, 1997, A1). The Canadian flag became a recurring symbol in race coverage. Another Globe and Mail item also referred to the flag and the Canadian national anthem as it described how “a picture of the Canadian flag went up on the huge Jumbotron board and O Canada was played over the loudspeaker system as organizers milked the moment shamelessly” (Christie, 1997a, C16). Similarly, the Toronto Star’s June 2, 1997 front-page article, headlined “Bailey the unbeatable: Sprinter slams rival on and off track,described the 25,000 fans at the SkyDome that day, most of them “rabidly pro-Bailey,” roaring in approval as Bailey savoured his win while “draped in the Canadian flag.”  These patriotic fans, as the item reported, also had “maple leafs painted on their faces and waved Canadian flags” (Starkman, 1997, A1). Another article from the Star, headlined, “Fans hoarse but happy: Hometown group wants ‘Bailey for PM,’ ” focused on fan reaction to Bailey’s win, using quotes that showed a particularly anti-American attitude:

“Bailey’s fans were well represented in a patriotic sea of red and white inside SkyDome yesterday. Jacob Clark, 15, had a red maple leaf painted on his face to match his red and white jersey and the enormous Canadian flag he carried. His four friends were similarly attired. ‘We wanted to show our true Canadian spirit and tell another cocky American who’s boss,’ declared the North York student” (Infantry, 1997, A6).

Coverage of Donovan Bailey’s “chicken” comment

Bailey’s comments came under fire for being too American-like and thus, not Canadian. While many criticized Bailey’s comments and called them un-sportsman-like, the larger theme that emerged was that his comments represented “un-Canadian” and more “American-like” behaviour. For example, in the Globe and Mail article headlined “Bailey apologizes for ‘chicken’ remark: Canadian sprinter makes amends for unpopular statement after beating Johnson in fastest-man race,” one Bailey fan was quoted as saying,He’s lowered his standard to the Americans” (Christie, 1997b, D12). While a number of letters to the editor criticized Bailey’s comments for being un-sportsman-like, other letters called Bailey’s quotes “American-like.” For example, the author of one letter to the editor in the Toronto Star expressed a sense of shame and embarrassment over Bailey’s un-Canadian comments:

“… His remarks were ungracious, unkind and profoundly un-Canadian.

They prove that Bailey’s real talent is running off at the mouth” (Toronto Star 1997,  A26).

Another letter to the editor in the Toronto Star questioned why Bailey received so much flak for his comments while his American counterpart could get away with the same kind of behaviour:

“Why is it that Michael Johnson can run off at the mouth when it comes to hurling insults at Bailey, and his fellow Americans praise and support him, while Canadians turn on their own, claiming Bailey’s comments were in bad taste? Surely there are other things in the world to worry about than whether or not the fastest human in the world was a ‘polite’ Canadian” (Toronto Star, 1997, A26).

Both excerpts are reflective of the common theme in the news coverage and commentary surrounding Bailey’s comments—that he was acting not in a Canadian manner, but rather in an American one.  Items in the newspapers analyzed either reproached Bailey for behaving in a “profoundly un-Canadian” way or excused him by placing his comments and behaviour on the same level as “what Americans do,” again reflecting the basic Canadian-American differentiation as an aspect of Canadian identity.

Discussion and conclusion

The newspapers analyzed present Canadian nationalistic and anti-American sentiment through the language used in the coverage of the One-to-One Challenge of Champions and of Bailey’s comments. The battle- or war-like tone to the coverage could be interpreted as highlighting the underlying Canada-U.S. antagonism that was a key aspect of the race. Scholars such as Jarvie (1993) and Bairner (2001) have argued such sport rivalries are effective in creating a strong sense of nationalism and national identity.

Throughout coverage of the race itself, the Canadian maple leaf, the flag and the national anthem were recurring symbols, while the American stars-and-stripes and “The Star-Spangled Banner” were absent. Bailey was also presented as a national hero, while Johnson was portrayed as an American villain.

Finally, articles, opinion pieces and letters to the editor on Bailey’s “chicken” comment and the tendency to frame his behaviour as “un-Canadian” or “American-like” is a significant aspect of the event’s coverage in terms of Canadian identity. As mentioned earlier, a number of scholars have pointed out that a major feature of Canadian identity is created by comparing Canada and Canadian culture to the United States and American culture, and by highlighting the purported differences between the two, thus creating an “us and them”—or more precisely, a “we are not like them/they are not like us”—dichotomy. As McKee (2003) put it, different cultures often recognize identity by “describing the people who are like ‘us’ very differently from how we interpret the behaviour of ‘them,’ even if they do exactly the same things” (McKee, 2003, p. 43).

While analyzing one specific event and a limited amount of newspaper coverage of it offers insight into only a small part of a much larger picture, it is evident that sport in Canada plays an important role in Canadian pride and national identity.  Furthermore, press coverage of sporting events and the language used can work to strengthen these sentiments and foster identity creation. As evidenced by the coverage of the One-to-One Challenge of Champions, anti-Americanism is a dominant aspect of Canadian identity. More extensive research on this topic is merited, especially in the wake of the recent Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

References

Christie, J. (1997b). Bailey apologizes for ‘chicken’ remark: Canadian sprinter makes amends for unpopular statement after beating Johnson in fastest-man race. Globe and Mail, 3 June 1997, D12.

Cook, D. (1997). Letters to the editor: Spurious sprint. Globe and Mail, 25 March 1997, C11.

Infantry, A. (1997). Fans hoarse but happy: Hometown group wants ‘Bailey for PM.’ Toronto Star, 2 June 1997, A6.

Jarvie, G. (1993). Sport, nationalism, and cultural identity. In L. Allison (Ed.) The changing politics of sport (pp. 58-83). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

La Presse. (1997a). Un duel de géants. La Presse, 28 May 1997, S2.

La Presse. (1997b). Une piste pour Michael Johnson. La Presse, 23 April 1997, S10.

MacClancey, J. (1996). Sport, identity and ethnicity.  In J. MacClancey (Ed.) Sport, identity and ethnicity (pp. 1-20). Oxford, UK: Berg.

MacLennan, J. (2007). Signposts of cultural identity: George Grant’s lament for a nation and Mel Hurtig’s the vanishing country.  Journal of the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric 2 (2007), 1-27.

McKee, A. (2003). Textual Analysis: A beginner’s guide. London, UK: Sage Publications.

Sellar, D. (1997). Bailey’s quote—in hindsight! Toronto Star, 7 June 1997, B2.

Starkman, R. (1997). Bailey the unbeatable: Sprinter slams rival on and off track. Toronto Star, 2 June 1997, A1.

The Gazette. (1997). Bailey an easy winner in London: But Johnson well-beaten, finishing fifth against modest 200 field. The Gazette, 18 Aug. 1997, F5.

Toronto Star. (1997). Letters to the Editor: Bailey’s real talent is exposed. Toronto Star, 5 June 1997, A26.

Wilden, T. (1980). The imaginary Canadian: An examination for discovery. Vancouver, BC: Pulp Press.

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