Skip to main content

James Christie at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

To those who knew him and relied on his expertise, sports writer James Christie, who died on Saturday at the age of 65, was the encyclopedia that walked like a man. No fact was too obscure; no detail too small. If you needed to know how many Olympic gold medals Austria has won in alpine skiing, you went to him. If you needed to know who best to quote to add depth to a story – a coach, an administrator – you asked Jim Christie.

During his four decades with The Globe and Mail, he interviewed all the big names – Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio, Wayne Gretzky – but he shone brightest covering the Summer and Winter Olympics, where he garnered the respect of his peers and readers alike.

Four years ago, shortly after his retirement, Mr. Christie was told he had a degenerative neurological disease.

His death set off a wave of stories among his peers. A sophisticate who wore a dark trench coat and a trimmed mustache – looking every bit the spy who came in from the cold – he surprised a group of sports writers one night in Montreal when he asked them to join him to see Ozzy Osbourne at the Forum.

No one saw that coming.

"He loved the job, he loved the Games, he loved seeing the world," former Globe sports columnist Stephen Brunt said. "Covering an Olympics is invariably a high-stress proposition. Folks tend to fray around the edges by the end of the 17 days. But Jim somehow managed to come through it without rancour, without falling prey to petty grievances and always with that wonderful smile on his face."

James Richard Christie was born on Nov. 8, 1952, in West Toronto's Junction Triangle, close to the Stock Yards, where the steers would sometimes break free and carry on as if it was the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It was great entertainment, Mr. Christie once recalled.

In high school, he was an Ontario scholar earning awards for his diligence, good conduct and smarts.

Mr. Christie did occasional work for The Globe while still in high school before signing on full time in 1974. Within two years, he was receiving death threats for his digging into the scandals and cost overruns that plagued the Montreal Olympics. It was the beginning of a long-term relationship with the Games, one that would take him around the planet, from Los Angeles to Seoul; Calgary; Barcelona; Albertville, France; Lillehammer, Norway; Atlanta, Nagano, Athens, Salt Lake City, Beijing and Vancouver.

Often, Mr. Christie competed against fellow amateur sports specialists Randy Starkman, at the Toronto Star, and Steve Buffery, at the Toronto Sun. Mr. Buffery recalled his own feelings of being overwhelmed on his first major assignment, the 1990 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand.

"I'm freaking out – what do I cover? And Jim said, 'You can only cover one event at a time,'" Mr. Buffery said. "He took out the schedule and showed me what events I should be at. He didn't have to do that, but he took me under his wing. He called me 'son.'

"'Gentleman,' that's the perfect word for Jim."

Mr. Christie was perfectly smitten when he first saw Tanya Fernbach in the newsroom in 1974. She had been heading to the paper's library for a research project when she heard all the phones ringing unattended in the sports department. In quick order, she grabbed a pen and paper and began answering calls from people wanting to dictate scores and data. She was approached by editor Eddie Waring, who admired her initiative. "You start tomorrow," he said. She did and that put her on Mr. Christie's radar.

"Jim told his family he had met the woman he was going to marry. He didn't even know my name at that time," she said.

Once acquainted, and then in love, Mr. Christie proposed on Halloween in 1977 and they married two months later – on New Year's Eve, so they could celebrate every anniversary with fireworks.

"Jim was a husband, a father [to his sons James and Ricky] and a reporter, in that order," Ms. Christie said. "He loved being with his family."

At various times in his career, staying home wasn't possible for Mr. Christie. He was gone for up to 200 days of the year, following the Maple Leafs and covering other sports before settling into the Olympics beat, where he worked long hours and pushed filing deadlines to their limits.

He could also party all night, as he ably demonstrated at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The evening of the closing ceremonies saw the Canadian media corps come together for a sangria-fuelled dinner before spilling over into the media village, which featured an outdoor bar with fountains. As the evening wore on, the fountains became the venue for a media synchronized swimming event.

Mr. Brunt recounted what it was like the morning after the big blow-out.

"Jim and I were scheduled to travel back to Toronto. It's worth noting that he had the ability to operate on almost no sleep," Mr. Brunt said. "We did make it to the airport and got on our flight, where one of us – me – curled up in the fetal position and prayed for unconsciousness. In that moment, I looked over at my seatmate, Jim Christie, resplendent in a Panama hat, apparently not one bit worse for wear, fresh as a daisy. I loved him and hated him in that moment. But yeah, I loved him."

In 2000, Mr. Christie was at the family cottage near Huntsville, Ont., when he turned ashen and had difficulty walking. Suspecting her husband had experienced a heart attack, Ms. Christie drove him to a hospital, where he had a second heart attack. A doctor used a defibrillator to jump-start Mr. Christie's heart. "They brought him back to life," said Ms. Christie, who watched her husband being air-lifted to the Toronto General Hospital, where he underwent triple-bypass surgery. "It bought him 17 1/2 years."

While recovering, Mr. Christie had to miss the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

"During our final year in sports, Jim and I were to work on a story together," said former reporter Beverley Smith, who sat next to Mr. Christie.

"He had already told me that since the [2010] Vancouver Olympics he had suffered a blackout while driving his car – and I think he totalled the car. Doctors could never figure out why he did that. But he confided in me that he sometimes had troubles focusing and gathering his thoughts and it took him a lot longer to write stories."

In a June 23, 2010, e-mail that Ms. Smith saved, Mr. Christie acknowledged he had to have "a sleep study, another consult with cardiologist and neurological tests to find out if a minor stroke was the cause of my passing out while driving. I'm getting damned sick of tests, being the sick guy."

"Then he said: 'Sorry for the venting,'"Ms. Smith said. "Typical Jim."

Mr. Christie earned multiple awards for his reporting over the years, including one from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) for his coverage of female athletics. In 2013, he received a Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal for his exemplary service as a journalist.

Interact with The Globe