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Olympic Pioneer: Les McDonald’s Olympic Journey

Change? Les McDonald was happy to do that. Hard work? He was even happier to do that, too.

“I left school when I was 14 years old. I finished on the Friday, and on the Monday I was working in the coal mine, in the pit. The same one as my father worked in and my grandfather and my grandmother. That coal mine was 400 years old. Where I come from, coal mining people are different people. You’re friends for life. You learn a lot. The trade union movement in Britain was formed by the coal miners. I’m one of those people. If you want to change things, you change them.”

Change? Les McDonald was happy to do that. Hard work? He was even happier to do that, too. If you ask Les McDonald how triathlon became an Olympic sport, he’ll tell you that it was because of Juan Antonio Samaranch. Ask anyone else who is even remotely related to our sport and they’ll tell you it was all because of McDonald.

Sometime during the year leading up to the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee saw coverage of one of the United States Triathlon Series (USTS) events on television. He liked what he saw and decided the sport should be part of the Olympics. Some research led him to McDonald, who he contacted one morning and asked to help him get triathlon into the Olympic Games. We all know the end result – in 2000 the women’s triathlon was the very first event of the Sydney games. The next day Simon Whitfield made us all proud by taking the gold in the men’s race.

In between that phone call and the walk to the start pontoon in Sydney Harbour was years of hard, dedicated work and lots of change. McDonald became the consummate politician along the way, managing to create strategic partnerships, help countries around the world develop national governing bodies and both create the International Triathlon Union and gain acceptance into the games. Like any politician worth his (or her) salt, he also managed to generate more than a bit of controversy and gain himself a few enemies, too.

“He’s been described as a hero, a bully, a peace-maker, a rabble-rouser, tenacious, athletic, a rule-breaker, benevolent and a politician,” wrote Gale Bernhardt in a series of stories on the history of triathlon written for Active.com.

Bernhardt forgot charismatic. No conversation with McDonald will ever be complete without hearing a few of his legendary stories and jokes, told with perfect timing. (“The last time I saw the doctor was when I had to go in for my checkup before I enlisted in the army. He told me to drop my pants, told me I was A1 and sent me off.”)  He celebrates his Scottish heritage in virtually everything he says and does. Born in 1933, his memories are full of references to the world war that devastated family life for so many from Great Britain during that era. When given the opportunity to head out to the mountains on a school trip, McDonald was quick to sign up.

“We only had women school teachers,” McDonald remembers. “One day a man came in – he still had his uniform on. We’d never had a man school teacher. He took eight of us into the mountains, there were big rock walls. I learned about climbing then and I never stopped after that.”

It was the beginning of a life-long passion for climbing that would see McDonald travel to the Himalayas and famous climbs like the Matterhorn, but possibly also a first sign that McDonald was destined to become a driven competitor. It was during his military service that he first learned to swim, ironically from a group of men from the same country that would host the 2000 Olympic Games.

“I had to go and do my national service in the army,” McDonald says. “We went to Cologne. It was the first time I’d been out of working in the coal mine. We met all kinds of people. Americans, New Zealanders, South Africans. We were at the army camp, and two of us went down to the swimming pool. This group came in, shouting and screaming – it was the first time I’d met Australians. They weren’t crazy – they were Aussies, you know what they’re like.”

“When I came out of the army, I’d lost my father and my uncles, there was no one left,” he remembers. “My brother was killed climbing and when my sister moved to Canada she got hit by a car. I said to my mother I should go, there were no jobs at home. I got on a ship, we finished off in Montreal. I took the train to Vancouver. The man who was supposed to meet me wasn’t there. I asked a guy who was there what I should do. Turns out his name was Campbell. That’s when I learned about the Scottish connection in Canada. He took me back home to his house and got me a job in the shipyard as an electrician. I became involved with the union there.”

McDonald would become a major force in the union movement of the time, but when he wasn’t working it was his love of climbing that got him on the mountains in the summer and kept him there in the winters – it wasn’t long before McDonald had become an avid skier. Through the 1970s he started running marathons and then, in 1981, he added triathlon to his sporting mix.

Like everything McDonald does, his mantra seemed to be “go big or go home.” By 1983 McDonald had become a world champion Ironman triathlete. That year he won the first of five-straight 50 to 54 world titles in Kona at the Ironman World Championship. Every year he went faster, setting another age group record each time until he finished with a 10:55:32 in 1987.

By then McDonald was well on his way to becoming a leader behind the scenes in the organization of the sport, managing to ruffle feathers while also becoming a political powerhouse. Behind the scenes McDonald was working tirelessly to get the sport into the Olympics.  As the head of first Triathlon B.C., then Triathlon Canada, McDonald was also becoming a major player in triathlon’s world scene. In March, 1989, the first congress of the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was formed and elected McDonald as its first president. According to Bernhardt, McDonald was funding a lot of that work through money he’d found in his mother’s suitcase (her life’s savings) after she passed away on a visit to Canada.

“After a discussion with his wife, Monique, it was agreed that Les would not continue to work as an electrician,” Bernhard wrote. “Instead, he would work full-time to move triathlon into the Olympic limelight. At a time when many people made personal sacrifices for the sport, Les would use his mother’s money to help support his current family and, primarily, fund the travel necessary to help triathlon become an Olympic sport.”

As much as McDonald was making personal sacrifices, no recounting of triathlon’s Olympic history can be told without mention of Loreen Barnett, whose tireless work alongside McDonald over the years has become legend. The Triathlon Canada office was already in one of her bedrooms, so once the ITU was formed, it didn’t take long before another spare room became the home of the world governing body, too.

The creation of the ITU was just one important step in getting triathlon into the Olympic program. To do that, McDonald had travelled endlessly for years, going from country to country, helping them form national governing bodies who could then be part of a world organization. By 1989 triathlon was one of 15 other sports that were recognized by the IOC that weren’t part of the games. McDonald’s next challenge was to convince the IOC that his sport deserved to leap-frog those other sports and get Olympic inclusion.

The development of draft-legal racing was an important step in that process. While many athletes at the time weren’t in favour of implementing drafting into races, it was a logical way to get around the inevitable officiating complaints that were becoming rampant in the sport at the time. In time, though, the drafting controversy would be the least of McDonald’s woes as he fought to control the sport. Ironically, the once five-time Ironman age group champion spent much of the 1990s in a protracted battle with Ironman, which eventually saw the two bodies at the centre of the sport come to an agreement in 1998: Ironman would continue to hold the Ironman World Championship in Kona, while the ITU would focus on the World Cup series and various triathlon world championship events. It wasn’t just Ironman that McDonald found himself fighting, though. Staying at the head of the ITU was becoming an intense political battle.

“McDonald is the Primo Nebiolo of his sport, the autocratic – many say bullying – president of the ITU who, through alleged vote rigging and other manipulative tactics, has managed to hold onto his position through the 11-year history of the world governing body which he formed,” David Powell wrote from Sydney in 2000. “However, while his political skills may be compared to Nebiolo’s, the late president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, his commercial shortcomings have made him many an enemy among those who seek to professionalize the sport.”

A year after Powell wrote that piece from Sydney, Steven Downes reported in the Observer Newspaper that McDonald was in the hot seat again thanks to a series of lawsuits that had been filed by many of the more than a dozen delegates who were refused entry into the April, 2000 ITU Congress and were unable to cast their votes. McDonald was re-elected that day and, at the time, it was felt that he wouldn’t have won had those delegates made it into the room.

Downes also reported on investigations into the ITU’s financial records and that “he (McDonald) was forced to resign as president of Triathlon Canada in 1996 after an investigation into his organization’s accounts.”

Seemingly adorned in Teflon, McDonald managed to ride out each of the controversies and conflicts thrown at him, remaining as president of the ITU until 2008, when he was replaced by Marisol Casada. The election of a woman as president signified yet another of McDonald’s impressive achievements – equity for women in the sport. McDonald has been a staunch supporter of equal prize money and opportunities for women in triathlon since its inception. Barnett currently serves as the ITU’s Secretary General, making triathlon somewhat unique with two top women officials in the organization.

Hard work? Change? There’s been all of that in Les McDonald’s incredible career. Controversy? Yes, lots of that, too, but it would be hard to find anyone involved in the sport who wouldn’t agree that without McDonald our sport wouldn’t be where it is today.

“Sure, when you talk about Les there’s going to be controversy,” says Greg Welch, a five-time world champion who has known McDonald since 1987. “Les McDonald was the pioneer who got our sport into the Olympics, and that’s what has helped our sport become what it is today. He was an advocate from day one. He was the man who made our sport legitimate.”

Les McDonald Receives IOC Women and Sport Award

By Roger Hospedales

ITU Honorary President, Les McDonald, received a continental trophy at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) 2010 Women and Sport Awards, held at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Five continental trophies and one world trophy were given to exceptional personalities who have made a significant difference to boost the development, participation and involvement of women and girls in sport around the world. McDonald was given the award for the Americas and was the only male to receive the award this year.

As one of the leaders of the sport, McDonald was instrumental in triathlon’s inclusion in the Olympic Games and in growing the participation of women in triathlon. He established the first triathlon in Canada to have equal prize purses for women and men, which is a fundamental principle of ITU today. ITU President Marisol Casado accepted the award on McDonald’s behalf, who was undergoing hip surgery and unable to attend the event. Speaking on his behalf, Casado said: “Les McDonald was the driving force behind the introduction of triathlon to the Olympic Games, but his tireless efforts on behalf of women in triathlon are less well documented. After he retired as ITU President, ITU elected two women to our federation in key roles, myself as President and Loreen Barnett, Secretary General, without opposition from the congress. It is my pleasure to be standing here today to accept this award on behalf of Les McDonald, and we vow to continue his tireless work on behalf of women in sport all around the world.”