Couch potatoes the new target

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

With a few exceptions, I don't trust sports ministers. They tend to promise the world and fail to deliver even an inch. The ones I had a lot of respect for were Iona Campagnolo, Jean Charest and Otto Jelinek.

The latter personified a true sports minister, whose job it is to assist the development of sports and physical fitness in our country. In fact, without his foresight and financial help of $200 million, organizers of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics would have had a difficult time putting on the Games.

Now, enter another sports minister who, I hope, will follow the same path. He is Jim Watson, Ontario's newest sports minister. His official title actually is Minister of Health Promotion, but sport is his major focus.

Actually, I am not surprised by his interest in sports, sports facilities in Ontario and in national wellness. He worked several years as Jelinek's press secretary and experienced his former boss' keen interest in sports.

Watson, an astute politician and former mayor of Ottawa, is the man who encouraged Premier Dalton McGuinty to change the official title of the ministry so that it involves sports on a large scale.

"I believe that sport shouldn't be coupled with tourism, or similar departments," Watson told me over breakfast. "Because sport and fitness received little support, we were treating sickness instead of promoting wellness. Between 1992 and 2004, the proportion of adults aged 16 or older who actively participate in sport dropped from 45% to 31%. I want to promote sport because sport and recreation plays a big part in wellness. We don't need a nation of couch potatoes eating junk food and smoking."

But isn't it tough to initiate young people into wellness workouts when we have so few sports facilities in Ontario?

"I'm aware that we have fallen behind Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia in that regard," he said. "Those provinces have much more aggressive funding and they receive tax credits. Ontario lost 42% in funding, which is devastating. My goal is to get more funding from the federal government on a permanent basis. No sense in making one-year deals.

"The premier is the one who drives sport towards improved health. That's why he gave $20 million to schools to help reduce the rent of school facilities after school hours for other young people.

"We are also depending on the corporate world to supply sports equipment such as basketball hoops, hockey nets, etc.."

But how do we Torontonians get new facilities such as swimming pools, soccer pitches, a velodrome and more hockey arenas?

"Initially, the feds got involved in the building of sports facilities only when our cities were awarded major international events," Watson replied. "Sports facilities used to be coupled with the building of roads and sewers. Now the feds are changing their minds.

"I talked to Steve Owen (federal sports minister) and now it will be up to him to convince his cabinet and twist some arms, if necessary. I told him that without proper sports facilities, we will not own the podium."

The Ontario Trillium Foundation has $100 million available to invest in Ontario facilities and it eventually will decide to distribute some of that money to help Toronto build facilities worthy of the largest city in Ontario."

The next big international event for Canada is the Commonwealth Games. York Region has as good a chance as Halifax, Ottawa, London, Hamilton or Calgary to host the games. But York Region, as part of Toronto, urgently needs the facilities. I also trust that Watson won't support Ottawa's bid any more than York Region's efforts.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Longtime Maple Leafs physician and prominent plastic surgeon, Dr. Leith Douglas, informed team management that he was retiring. The rest of Leafs' medical and training staff was released ... They say that the family that plays together stays together. Carling Bassett (former Canadian tennis champion) and her husband Robert Seguso (a former world No. 1 doubles player) will compete in the upcoming U.S. Open in the over-35 age group. Their son, Holden, will play in the junior event.


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