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Wed, August 25, 2004
Catherwood Curse at it again
Felicien would appear to be the most recent victim of Ethel's wrath
By -- Toronto Sun

If you are wondering, as the rest of the country is this morning, how Perdita Felicien could fall over the first of the 100-metre hurdles, may I suggest the paranormal.

It is the Catherwood Curse.

Ethel Catherwood has been dead 16 years and I am not privy to what means the dead have at their disposal.

On motive, though, we can speak clearly enough.

Catherwood, the last Canadian female track and field athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, came to hate sports.

She renounced Canada, once tried to compete as an American and spent an unfortunate period as a national pariah not long after she had been a national treasure.

She had man trouble, hated newspaper people and had damnably good reason to curse our nation for all eternity.

Barring a surprise in the 1,500 metres later this week, it will be four more years until a Canadian woman again tries to end what will be 80 years of track and field futility since Catherwood won the high jump in the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

Felicien's stunning fall was just the latest in a series of calamities that began befalling our female track and fielder athletes since Catherwood bitterly pulled out of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and retired forever from sports.

That year in the 100 metres, a Canadian woman named Hilda Strike finished second to an American running under the flag of Poland named Stella Walsh. Walsh was killed in Cleveland in 1980, the victim of a random bullet, which, you know, isn't unusual. The oddity was that Walsh was found to have male genitalia.

Strike had her gold medal stolen by a Polish-American hermaphrodite and if that isn't a bad omen, I don't know what is.

No element of our Olympic program has been as snakebitten as our track and field women.

In Montreal in 1976, high jumper Debbie Brill saw her chance for gold slip away.

In 1980, Canadian pentathlete Diane Jones stood No. 2 in the world. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Canada boycotted the Games and Jones, later to be Diane Jones Konihowski, missed her chance.

Ethel Catherwood was the original athlete/sex symbol. She was born in South Dakota but moved to Saskatchewan.

She was 5-foot-10, dark haired and lithe, the daughter of a barnstorming father who put on running and roller skating exhibitions.

According to a biography, Catherwood excelled in every sport from skating to javelin and running to hockey.

The 1928 Games were the first to include women in athletics, a move that displeased many Games organizers, the Vatican and the highest members of the Canadian Olympic movement. They got over it when Catherwood, already acknowledged as the most beautiful woman at the Games, won the high jump.

Catherwood was a sensation. The press called her the Saskatoon Lily and she was besieged with movie offers.

She returned to Toronto, where she had been training with the Parkdale Ladies Athletic Club, then on to Saskatoon for a grand welcome that was declared, in her honour, a civic holiday.

Alas, there would be no more Olympic glory for Ethel Catherwood. In 1931, it was revealed that she had been secretly married for two years to a Toronto bank teller.

That tweaked the press boys, who preferred a more virginal vestige for their fantasies but the word that followed -- that she was in the process of divorcing James McLaren so she could marry a well-connected American named Byron Mitchell -- made for sensational copy.

SHUNNED

Things went bad quickly for Catherwood.

Puritan Toronto shunned her.

It was revealed that she was, by birth, American but efforts to compete for the United States never came to fruition. Her attempts for a quickie Reno divorce from McLaren were found out.

After pulling out of the 1932 Games, Catherwood did indeed marry Mitchell. The marriage lasted 28 years before they divorced.

Catherwood became increasingly contemptuous of Canada and athletics and rebuffed potential interviewers, often with spectacular language. She often denied being an athlete and told people she had been an American all her life.

In the late 1980s she told biographer Diane Ransom that being publicity-shy was "just one of my idiosyncrasies. I've never been interested in having anything written about me."

The Saskatoon Lily died of bone cancer in Grass Valley, Calif., in 1987. She was 79.

And so Canada will wait until Beijing in 2008 for a chance to lift the Catherwood Curse.

That year will mark the 100th anniversary of Catherwood's birth.

I, for one, will spring for the birthday ceremony.






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