Canadian coaching has lost one of its leaders, and the sport of track and field one of its most eloquent voices.
Geoff Gowan died in Halifax on Thursday night at the age of 83 after a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
Gowan was a member of both the Order of Canada and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and to track and field fans was an articulate broadcaster who “could turn a phrase as easily as any Olympian clears a hurdle,” said longtime CBC producer Terry Ludwick.
“He taught Canadians how to watch track and field,” said Ludwick, now a broadcasting executive with the CBC. “He could sum up victory and defeat in such human terms, but with technical expertise that could be understood by a schoolboy or schoolgirl. And he had such a great sense of humour and great appreciation for the athletes that he covered. His articulation was such that it’s almost difficult to watch track and field now without hearing a British voice.”
The native of Ravenglass, England, travelled the globe covering track and field, covering countless Olympics and world championships.
Ludwick remembers being in the broadcast boost with Gowan for the high jump at one particular meet.
“We showed three or four replays for each competitor. One particular athlete went over and they weren’t successful and the bar went down. And we showed three or four replays, and towards the last one Geoff said ‘And no matter how many times we show this replay, the bar will not stay up,“’ Ludwick recalled, with a laugh.
Gowan also dedicated much of his life to coaching development, and was technical director and president of the Coaching Association of Canada from 1972 to ‘96. In his 25 years with the national organization, he was instrumental in developing the National Coaching Certification Program, considered to be among the best coaching education programs in the world, and the program that has helped developed more than a million Canadian coaches.
“Geoff was an outstanding leader in Canadian sport, and influenced thousands of athletes, coaches, and colleagues in sport management and the media. He has been a friend, role model, and mentor to myself and many others in Canadian sport, and will be deeply missed,” CAC chief executive officer John Bales said in a statement.
A lasting tribute to Gowan’s leadership is the annual Geoff Gowan Award, which recognizes lifetime contribution to coaching development.
Many of Canada’s top coaches have won the award, including Jack Donahue, Doug Clement, Al Morrow, Donald Dion, Charles Cardinal, Andy Higgins, Tim Frick, Allison McNeill, Lyle Sanderson, Dru Marshall and Keith Russell.
“He was a really gracious human being,” Ludwick said. “As a coach, he understood that in everyone there was a champion that could be coaxed out in whatever walk of life they were.”
Longtime CBC broadcaster Steve Armitage remembered Gowan as a tireless worker who could put in gruelling 13 and 14-hour days without showing the slightest bit of fatigue. Gowan worked alongside the late Don Wittman covering track and field for 26 years, making for what Armitage called “one of the great combinations in Canadian broadcasting history.”
“He and Don [who died of cancer in 2008] really prided themselves in never having an argument,” Armitage said.
“Geoff was so good. He was, in his delivery and in his vocabulary, almost Churchillian,” Armitage added. “He would say things and he would say it in such a manner that after you heard it you would just go ‘Wow. How did he come up with that?’ And his wasn’t the shotgun, machine-gun approach to play-by-play. He would use his words sparingly and let the action tell the story.”
Longtime CBC sportscaster Mark Lee was similarly impressed with Gowan’s spine-tingling delivery.
“His voice crackled with authority when he called track and field,” Lee said. “His choice of words was so poetic, and his English accent gave him that distinguished quality that really separated him from the rest of the broadcasters. He was such a scholarly man when it came to track and field. . . but his ability to use his knowledge and distill it into 10 seconds of sterling broadcast quality with a delivery that came right out of Madison Avenue — he was a really remarkable person that way.”
Lee remembers being Gowan’s partner in the booth for one of Donovan Bailey’s world championship 100-metre victories — Donovan won the 100 metres at both the 1995 world championships and ‘96 Olympics.
“During the replay, right from the blocks when the gun went off, Geoff counted off ‘One. . . two. . . three. . . four. . . five. . . six. . .seven. . . eight. . . nine. . . 10,’ and I started leaning into the monitor to watch this,” Lee recalled. “He got up to 44 and Donovan crossed the finish line and Geoff said, ‘44 steps: the first 10 with the explosion of a race engine and the next 15 accelerating leanly and smoothly, with the gait of a gazelle, and then relaxing through the last 10,’ or whatever.
“But he counted every stride to the finish line. And at the end he said ‘44 strides to victory.’ It was so simple.”
Gowan could switch storytelling gears with ease, calling a field event or long-distance race with similar expertise.
“It was remarkable to watch an endurance event like a men’s 5,000 metres,” Lee said. “He would get right inside an athlete’s head. The cameras would show you these grimacing close-ups and Geoff would tell you that the mind was willing but the body was failing in this case. Or he could tell you in a 400 metres that with 100 metres to go the lactic acid was coursing through a runner’s quads and his legs were beginning to feel heavy and rubber, and now it was just survival to get to the finish line without tying up and his body crippling him.
“It was just a remarkable description of the human body at its best.”
“This was live too. He would choose these very descriptive passages right off the top of his head in a live broadcast,” Lee added. “There are very very few people in this world who can do that.”
Gowan was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame as a builder in 2002. He also received an honorary doctorate in civil law from Acadia University for his service to sport in Canada.
Details on funeral arrangements have not been released.