Joey Votto, Bane of Amateur Sport

We hate it when our friends become successful/And if they’re northern…

With Joey Votto winning the NL MVP this year, Canadians have scooped 3 of the last 28 MVPs (Larry Walker in 1997, Justin Morneau in 2006). That’s pretty amazing considering how there are only something like 20 Canadian Major Leaguers. Hooray Canada, right?

Wrong! At least, so says Alison Korn of the Toronto Sun.

On Tuesday, Joey Votto followed up his MVP season by winning the 2010 “Lou Marsh Award” for Canadian athlete of the year. Ms. Korn, who is herself an Olympic medalist, reacted:

While I’ll agree it’s impressive that Votto is the 2010 National League MVP and all, didn’t something happen in Vancouver/Whistler last February?

Um, yes. Canada hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics and won the most gold medals of any nation. That’s why awarding the Lou to a pro athlete– in this year, of all years–is a slap in the face to amateurs.

I disagree that giving “the Lou” to Joey Votto is an insult to amateur athletes, just because other Canadians won gold medals.

What’s particularly galling about this year’s decision is that the Lou Marsh award has a history of going to an outstanding Olympian in an Olympic year. There was wrestler Daniel Igali in 2000, speed skater Catriona Le May Doan in 2002, kayaker Adam van Koeverden in 2004, speed-skater Cindy Klassen in 2006 and wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc in 2008.

The fact that, in recent years, the Canadian “best athlete” award has gone to an amateur in Olympic years, i.e. every other year, suggests that amateurs have been pretty well represented in terms of taking home the Lou. Also, aren’t there professional athletes in the Olympics these days? Like Sidney Crosby, recipient of the 2007 and 2009 Lou Marsh Awards?

There are so many worthy champions, that to compare athletes and try to rank them inevitably becomes ridiculous. Consider depth of field, one popular argument. Baseball is more played in more countries than women’s bobsleigh. Does that make Votto more worthy than women’s Olympic bobsleigh champions Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse?

No, it does not. They’re all the best in the world at what they do.

Humphries and Moyse crushed the field and produced repeated, perfect, spine-chilling runs in Whistler. They did everything at the Olympics they could possibly do, but are somehow judged inferior to Votto.

And if anyone brings up depth of field in the same phrase as the Paralympics, I’m going to barf.

Amidst all this, what Ms. Korn really seems to want is for the Lou Marsh to go to an Olympian as a way of recognizing all the Canadian Olympians. From a contrary perspective, that undervalues Canadian amateur athletes’ individual accomplishments by suggesting that awarding one amateur is equivalent to awarding them all. I doubt Jason Bay feels like Joey Votto’s MVP award stands for his accomplishments too.

Reading between the lines, Ms. Korn may have general issues regarding the amateur-professional divide, perhaps a fear that the money in professional sports could overwhelm Canada’s proud amateur tradition. This is probably intertwined with grouchiness about American cultural imperialism in general.

Which leads us to important questions about the role of amateurism in sports generally. It was a basic assumption held by many of the people who invented today’s most popular sports that part of being an sportsman was not getting paid for it. In the United States today, these ideas are reserved for almost sole use in (disingenuous?) NCAA marketing. I would argue that the United States values amateur athletics less than any other nation, at least at the adult level.

Joey Votto being Canadian athlete of the year is not a sign that Canada is losing its national sporting identity. But it’s certainly true that Americans approach sports a little differently from our frozen friends.

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Navin Vaswani

As a proud Canadian, I’d like to just say: It’s freezing up here!