By RON FANFAIR
She represented Canada with fierce pride and remarkable distinction at five Olympics, including the 1996 Atlanta Games where she was the opening ceremony flag bearer.
And when she hung up her track shoes after a successful career that spanned almost two decades, she opened a consulting firm, was elected to the International and Canadian Olympic Committees and played strategic roles in bringing the 2010 Winter Olympics to Vancouver, where she now resides, and the Pan Am Games to Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe region in 2015.
Charmaine Crooks has been a winner most of her life, an attitude she shared with 21 young women – one from each of the G-20 nations and the other representing the African Union – at the first Girls-20 summit in Toronto last week.
Former Member of Parliament and Magna International Inc. executive vice-president Belinda Stronach conceived the idea for the summit to discuss how women can solve some of the world’s problems.
“The work that Belinda is doing globally to draw attention to girls is really important, particularly as it pertains to education, health, economic prosperity and really making young girls feel they can be empowered to make change,” Crooks told Share before conducting a physical activity session with the participants last Saturday at the Yorkville Club in Toronto.
“In Canada, young women enjoy great opportunities, but the landscape around the world is quite different. It’s a privilege and honour for me to be a small part of something that brings girls together around a common agenda for change in areas they collectively see are important for the next generation.”
A supporter of Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics that was awarded to Beijing, Crooks says she relishes working on behalf of Canadian cities to secure major sports events.
“Whenever there is an opportunity to host world-class events in Canada and I get the call, I go,” she said. “I believe in sport in Canada because it can be a real catalyst for change, for self-esteem, for developing communities and sport can really give a person a real sense of self-confidence that they can accomplish things in other areas of their life too.”
Crooks, an 11-time Canadian champion, was one of 20 directors on the Vancouver Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games Organizing Committee (VANOC) and a member of the board of directors that successfully bid for the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“The legacy of this year’s Winter Games in a country that is winter-focused will have a spill-over effect for all sports,” predicts Crooks who was the first Canadian woman to run 800 metres in under two minutes. “And having the Pan Am Games and a long-term commitment to own the podium can really spur sport development in this country and get our summer athletes on top of the podium.
“I believe there is a strong legacy that can be realized from sport, not just for sport development but also for the economic impact on a country, whether it’s branding a country from a tourism perspective or economic development. Sport is also a vital tool in terms of health promotion and building self-esteem. That’s why I am so drawn to it because I know how it has affected my life and if I have a chance to give back by supporting events that come to our communities, I am there from the start to the finish line.”
One of nine children, Crooks came to Canada from Jamaica at age six in 1968 and attended Winona Public School and West Toronto Collegiate where she ran 53.32 secs. in the 400-metre event at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) championship in her final year of high school in 1980. The record stands 30 year later and is the second oldest OFSAA record behind Julie White’s 1.88-metre high jump leap in 1979.
Crooks attended the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) on an athletic scholarship from 1981-1984 where she graduated with a Psychology degree and was a six-time All-American. Four years ago, she became the first female alumnus to be inducted as an individual into the university’s Sports Hall of Fame. (Former Canadian high jumpers Greg Joy and Milt Ottey are also members as part of the 1976 indoor and 1981 outdoor track and field teams respectively.)
The 1983 Pan American Games 400-metre gold medalist and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics 4 x 400-metre silver medalist has remained close to the Olympic movement as an administrator. She was a full International Olympic Committee (IOC) voting member from 2000-2004, a founding member of the independent IOC Ethics Commission and a current member of the Press and Athletes Commissions. She is also a founding chair of the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO) Athletes Commission and the International Board of Directors member for Right to Play, an athlete-driven international humanitarian organization that uses sports to encourage the development of youth in disadvantaged areas.
“I do a lot of volunteer work in sport,” said the motivational speaker, freelance TV personality and World Athletics Gala host who was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and a year later selected as one of the top 50 Women of Power in Canada. “Here in Canada, my focus is on the high-performance side and with the Canadian Olympic Association, Own the Podium and grassroots development.”
The founder and president of NGU Consultants which is a sports marketing, management and corporate consulting company, Crooks and her husband, Anders Thorsen, live in West Vancouver.