Supporting Canadian Athletes

Ian Bird

In 2001, Ian Bird was elected to the AthletesCAN Board of Directors and within a few months was named interim chair. While the quick transition would be daunting for most, Ian credits “the great group” he was working with at the time for helping to make it easy for him.

“We had a great team and a great team-oriented approach and we set the stage for some really good successes,” he says.

Growing up in North Vancouver, Ian began playing field hockey at the age of six. While not a mainstream sport in Canada, Ian says there are pockets across the country, including in his old neighbourhood, where field hockey is popular because of expatriate populations from South Africa, India, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

“It’s just what we did in my neighbourhood,” he says. “We played soccer through the fall and winter, and then field hockey in the spring.”

Ian joined the national team in 1988 just in time to compete in the Seoul Olympics. During his Olympic debut, Ian collided head on with an opponent and was knocked unconscious. The unpredictable seizures and blackouts that followed forced him to retire in 1991, but five years later Ian returned to the game. He helped the national team earn top ten finishes in several international events (including a Pan Am gold in 1999) leading up to the Olympics in 2000. Canada finished 10th in Sydney and Ian retired for good soon after.

Ian first got involved in athlete leadership in the late 1990’s when he began sharing athlete rep responsibilities with one of his field hockey teammates. There was a lot going on in sport in terms of athlete issues and athlete opportunities, and Ian says the team wanted to make sure they were a part of it. He attended his first AthletesCAN Forum in 1997 and was hooked.

“I got to meet a lot of people who had been active already and were encouraging others to be active and get involved,” says Ian. “I decided to take athlete leadership on!”

After his retirement in 2000, Ian decided to make the move to Ottawa to lead the charge on the Esteem Team’s newly expanded national initative (originally a BC initiative). He eventually worked his way up to CEO and has since held the position of executive director with Coaches of Canada. He has also contributed to Commonwealth Games Canada’s international development through sport advisory committee, Motivate Canada, Public Policy Forum, SportWeb Canada, and Imagine Canada.

Enjoying making the connections between the athlete community and the political community, Ian has served as a member of Sport Ministers Denis Corderre and Paul Devilliers’ advisory committees, and was actively involved in the creation of the Sport Matters Group (SMG). He has been senior leader of SMG since 2005.

Ian ran for the AthletesCAN board of directors in 2001 via video, as the birth of his daughter rendered him unable to attend. He was elected to the board and soon after named interim chair when Greg Edgelow stepped down from the position. As chair, Ian worked closely with AthletesCAN’s first executive director, Tom Jones, to build relationships in the sport community and worked toward completing the athlete declaration, improving the carding program and fostering athlete leadership roles within NSOs.

“The work we were doing was important and we were making a difference,” says Ian, who, due to a full schedule, decided not run in the next election. “Nothing like success to keep you involved and engaged!”

And it is the success that athletes can have when they put their minds to it that Ian feels should motivate more of them to get involved.

“The high performance system exists to provide opportunities to athletes and it won’t work if athletes aren’t in the middle of it,” he says. “Athletes need to be at the centre of the design, implementation and renewal of that system.”

Ian says it’s easy for sport organizations and leaders to lose sight of the athlete-centered concept and that even he, a former national team athlete, has to remind himself to consider the athlete perspective on issues.

“By involving athlete leaders, you don’t forget why you’re there,” he says. “The more athletes that are putting themselves forward, the more it will shape an athlete-centred system. Countries that do that are the ones that really achieve results.”

In the future, Ian hopes AthletesCAN can build on its success and evolve with the ever-changing sport system and sport community.

“AthletesCAN has the ability to be ahead of the curve and be a leader because it is able to adapt to changes and get new people involved,” he says. “I hope AthletesCAN continues to help Canadian athletes make a difference for themselves and for each other.”

Ian lives in Chelsea, Que., with his wife, son and two daughters.

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