Dr Rudy Gittens watches
his protegés in action
/ 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
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
/ Kevin Hayashi
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!"
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.
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
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."