JUNE 30, 2007


'The beautiful game' comes north

Soccer's top doc gears up to host int'l tourney

Dr Rudy Gittens watches his protegés in action
Photo: CanadaSoccer.com / Kevin Hayashi

"I watched the soccer games with my father," Dr Rudy Gittens, an Ottawa-based orthopaedic surgeon and head of the Canadian Soccer Association's Sports Medicine Committee, reminisces. As he speaks, his voice, with its soft Trinidadian lilt, warms to the subject like a slow Caribbean sunrise. "In those days, the ball was big and heavy with a laced-up slit on the side. The men who played the game were big and strong, so it was an impressive sight for me as a child," he adds with a laugh.

"Those days" were in the early forties, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where the MD grew up. The twin-island nation of Trinidad & Tobago didn't have professional soccer back then, but Dr Gittens had the amateur teams of his district to inflame his imagination and give rise to his lifelong passion for the sport.

Dr Gittens will finally get to indulge that passion on his home turf when Canada plays host to the Under-20 World Cup of soccer from June 30 to July 22. "It's amazing that a country that has snow on the ground for five months of the year was able to get the tournament," he says with pride. "I hope it will help expand soccer in this country."

His hope looks well on its way to becoming a reality, with record breaking ticket sales and a frenzy of media excitement that exceeded organizers' expectations. The world's finest under-20 players will be competing, and like any true soccer fan, Dr Gittens has his favourites. "Our Canadian team, of course," he says, without a moment's hesitation. "We have an excellent team and the friendly exhibition games have been impressive. The South Americans have strong teams too, and the Central Americans," he adds, to be fair.

Team Canada's players set their sights on the Cup
Photo: CanadaSoccer.com / Kevin Hayashi

A higher goal
Dr Gittens didn't always watch from the sidelines. "I played goal in high school," he recalls. "We had a record of 52 goals for, none against during a tournament. Then in the cup match, a goal was scored on me. Only one goal." He adds with pride, "We still won the cup."

He left Trinidad in 1953 to study in Saskatchewan. "I studied pharmacy at first," says Dr Gittens. "Then I decided to get on the other side of the prescription and got my medical degree in Ottawa."

Through it all, he continued to play soccer, or football as he still calls it, making some necessary adjustments along the way — especially that Canadians seem to think body checking isn't just for hockey. "The football mentality here — that if you didn't get the ball, you got the man — got me in some trouble," he laughs. "I guess I had a little more skill than some of my university colleagues, so I could handle the ball. But I was getting hit, so I had to learn to protect my ankles!"

Soccer in the snow
The weather required another adjustment in attitude from the young student. "One Saturday afternoon, about three months after I got here, there was a game on and it was snowing," says Dr Gittens. "So, I didn't go out to the game, I didn't think you played in snow. Then they came looking for me." Resignedly, the young Caribbean pulled on his boots and made the most of it. "When I told my relatives, they said 'What have you got yourself into?'" he recalls with a chuckle.

Now, with 41 years of sports medicine behind him and many honours crowning his achievements, everyone knows what Dr Gittens has got himself into. Earlier this year, he received a Mayor's Cup from the city of Ottawa for lifetime achievement, a nod to his tireless efforts as a volunteer with the Canadian Soccer Association Medical Committee. This May, Dr Gittens was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame. The cherry on top came a week later when the long-standing member of the FIFA (the international soccer federation) medical committee entered the hall of fame of CONCACAF, the soccer federation of the Americas.

Not resting on his laurels
Dr Gittens was an early pioneer in his chosen field. "I became involved in Sports Medicine at a time when it was two words with not much behind them," he reveals. "But things have developed over the years, with consideration of physical health, mental health, injuries and the safety and development of playing facilities, among other things."

His work with FIFA put him in direct contact with some of the biggest names in the sport, but the mild-mannered doc was more impressed with their behaviour off the field than on it. "What I find so interesting is that many of them are very courteous, polite and approachable," he notes.

One player in particular stood out in his memory. "Ronaldinho is a very delightful gentleman," he admits, speaking of the FC Barcelona forward. "He was younger when I met him, but was very lively and very talented, and being Brazilian, there was a rhythm and a flair to his game that was very impressive."



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