By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 11, 2018)
Fifth in a series
Watching sports for decades isn’t something that countless individuals do as a big — or small — part of their work duties.
Stephen Brunt, however, has done this for decades, and as the Canadian sports journalism icon speaks about it, it’s clear that chronicling games still brings him joy and wonder.
There have been too many big thrills to list — or even ask about — during the course of a normal phone conversation. But the Sportsnet pundit provided a mesmerizing glimpse into the career he’s had, the events he’s covered and places he’s been to.
“Boy, the events, oh this is a lot of good stuff,” Brunt said recently by phone from Hamilton, Ontario.
Was there an ultimate No. 1 moment or event?
“I would say that my favorite moment as a reporter was when I was at the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona covering a boxing match featuring the first black South African (light flyweight Abram Thwala) to compete for his country,” Brunt revealed, “because that was the first year that black athletes competed under the South African flag, and we were sitting in this crummy little arena in a suburb of Barcelona watching this kid fight. And (Nelson) Mandela came into the arena accompanied by a guy I knew who was working in the anti-apartheid movement and I knew him from that and I met him in Canada, but he was kind of Mandela’s right-hand man.
“And I kept eye contact with him, and when he left the arena I hollered to him and said, ‘Hey, can we talk?’ and me and a couple other guys from the Canadian media contingent had a lovely chat with Nelson Mandela (then the African National Congress chairman) mostly about boxing,” the former longtime Globe and Mail columnist recalled. “So that’s what he wanted to talk about; he was a boxer, and he wanted to talk about the kid’s fight. He didn’t want to talk about the great historic moment that it was, but it was about this kid’s fight.”
Rafael Lozano of Spain outpointed Thwala 9-0 to win the bout.
“To stand in the presence of Nelson Mandela in this weird situation, this completely random situation, that to me (was special),” Brunt continued.
“Going to (Muhammad) Ali’s house with my kids was a biggie,” he said of visiting The Greatest’s farm. “I wrote about that when I took my boys when they were really little to meet Ali at his house in Michigan.
“But when you watch Usain Bolt at the Olympics or the World Cup final or I saw some fights that felt like a big deal. The Tyson-Spinks fight felt like a big deal, Leonard-Hagler. It’s kind of that feeling where it feels like the whole world’s watching. And you don’t take it for granted, you still kind of look around and say, ‘Holy smokes, I can’t believe I’m here.’
“The Champions League final (in 2011) at Wembley where Manchester United played Barcelona, you’re just looking around going, ‘Wow! This is pretty cool. I’m here.’ ”
Does ice hockey still feel that way to Brunt, too?
“Yeah,” he admitted. “It’s never been my favorite sport, like I love it, but it’s not No. 1 for me, but Canada certainly winning the (Olympic) gold medal in Salt Lake City (in 2002) … for the first time in 50 years, that was pretty great.
“I saw the Rangers win the Stanley Cup for the first time in (54 years) in Manhattan, and that was unbelievable walking around the streets that night when they beat Vancouver in Game 7…”
Brunt feels blessed to have had the opportunity to witness numerous marquee events over the years.
He continued: “A lot of the things that I keep coming back to are kind of those global events that transcend one sport. It doesn’t matter what you care about, you’ve got to watch.”
Brunt traveled to Japan for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and the 2002 World Cup.
Asked to describe those experiences, Brunt said he “loved it.”
“Nagano was kind of a funny introduction to Japan,” he added, “because it’s kind of a backwater (locale) obviously, and we didn’t get out of Nagano a whole lot, and just did get out to some of the surrounding towns, and I spent a night in Tokyo on the way home, so I didn’t get as much of a feel for it.
“But when I did the World Cup, I was in Tokyo for a month, and I stayed in the Tokyo Hilton for a month. It’s the biggest hotel bill I’ve ever had. We went all over the country on the train. … I was out my own a lot because there were reporters spread all over the place. There wasn’t like a pack of us, and yeah, I got way more of a sense, I think, of the city and of the country, not to the point where I am any kind of Japan hand but it was kind of discombobulating. I did feel like I was kind of on a different planet, because so much of it was impenetrable culturally for the first time around. I just kind of stood and stared a whole lot and ate a lot of great meals and tried to kind of negotiate the city and negotiate the country and soak up as much as I could in a month.
“It was a very cool experience.”
“I love the little bento box in the train station and hopping on a bullet train and going across the country and eating these perfect little bits of food,” he stated.
And he’s forever grateful for the opportunity to experience Japan and many other places during his global excursions as a journalist.
“I’ve seen so much of the world with somebody else paying the bills. … I was very, very lucky that the two things lined up for me that my professional life allowed me that opportunity to see things,” Brunt concluded while estimating he’s been to about 30-40 countries.
Here are the previous installments in this series: