Former Manitoba Premier and Canadian politician Gary Doer has championed the Special Olympics movement throughout his 30-plus year career.
It was former NHL player, Ted Irvine, who first introduced Doer to the cause in the 1980s. Irvine partnered with Special Olympics in the U.S. while playing for the New York Rangers and was inspired to get programs running in Manitoba when he returned to Winnipeg. He recruited Dan Johnson, former Special Olympics Manitoba CEO, and Doer to help get it off the ground.
Doer jumped on board.
“I didn’t want to just go to board meetings and look at financial statements – I wanted to be directly involved and work with the athletes,” he said.
He took the lead on organizing the province’s first Summer Games and got to know the coaches, athletes and families involved.
While he loved watching local athletes progress through Provincial Games to National and World Games, he was most inspired by the constant support and encouragement he witnessed.
“The kind of support that coaches give to the athletes – winning, and more importantly losing – and the support the athletes give to each other … it’s just kind of a culture that you don’t see in sports in general,” said Doer, recalling a Games moment when he saw an athlete fall and a competitor stop to help him up before they both continued. “For us who’ve been trained to win at all costs, Special Olympics just has a totally different culture – one of self worth through sports and training, but also dignity of your fellow competitors.”
“Sometimes it brings a tear to your cynical eye.”
As he progressed through his political career as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, to the Manitoba Premier and Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, he continued to champion the cause.
According to Special Olympics Manitoba CEO Jennifer Campbell, Doer’s ongoing political influence helped expand the movement, not only in the province, but across the country – and even the border.
“He was always very instrumental in ensuring we had our funding,” said Campbell. “He always had the movement top of mind and carried a piece of Special Olympics with him throughout his career.”
Even while Doer was Canada’s Ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2016, he incorporated Special Olympics wherever he could. For example, he featured Special Olympics at a Governors’ meeting in Washington by inviting Tim Shriver and an athlete to speak.
“There’s a lot more people that have stuck with it 24-7 – like coaches and parents and volunteers,” Doer, who now serves as an honorary Special Olympics Manitoba board member, said humbly. “You get a little bit of a profile as Premier and Ambassador, so you try to use that to promote the cause. I just try to do what I can.”
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