Interview with Diane Jones Konihowski

Diane Jones Konihowski (courtesy of Diane Jones Konihowski)

This past week, it was announced that Vancouver native Diane Jones Konihowski would be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and receive the Order of Sport. Jones Konihowski, who was raised in Saskatoon and currently lives in Calgary, won two gold medals in women’s pentathlon at the Pan American Games (1975 in Mexico City and in 1979 in San Juan, Puerto Rico) and at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta. In the 1970’s, one could argue that Jones Konihowski was Canada’s finest all-around female track and field athlete. The pentathlon was a two-day event that consisted of the women’s 100 metre hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump, and 200 metres. After the 1976 Olympic Games, it became a one-day event and the 200 metres were replaced by the 800 metres. Here is my interview with Diane Jones Konihowski.

Q: Congratulations on being inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. Tell me about your initial reaction when you heard the news?

A: “I was honestly very surprised. I am in almost every Hall of Fame (Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame, University of Saskatchewan Hall of Fame, Athletics Canada Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame), but I never thought I would get to this one. I was on the selection committee for 10 years in the 1980’s, and early 1990’s, and I knew how hard it was just to be nominated. We have some amazing builders and athletes who are leading with international success, so we have a lot of catching up to do. I was first of all surprised, and then truly humbled and honoured.”

Q: Discuss the impact you have had on sport in Canada.

A: “Being a role model, I have had thousands of people come up to me over the years, especially
women. They have said ‘there were so few women role models in the 1970’s’ that you were the reason I pursued my sport.’ When you’re an athlete, you just put down your head and just go. You don’t think about the impact of your journey until you’ve retired, and you have an opportunity to look back at all the things that you’ve done, and the person you have become. It is nice that (the selection committee) now look beyond the athlete, and they look at the person that you have become. It’s not just about the medals. They are interested in what you have given back to sport, how you have impacted the community, and I think that is all really positive.”

Q: You have had two significant connections in your life with Moscow. Let’s talk about the first experience, at the 1973 World Student Games. What was it like to win a bronze medal?

A: “You’ve done your homework. Very few people have asked me about those Games. The Summer Universiade as it is called now, is like the Olympics. In my day, the majority of Olympians were in fact students. So those Games were a really big deal. I remember carrying the flag into the stadium. I remember winning a double-headed eagle as an award for the most elegant athlete at the Games. That was interesting. My performance in Moscow in 1973 was very important to me because the competition included the same athletes I met in 1972 at my first Olympic Games in Munich (finished 10th), and they were the same athletes I was going to meet in 1976 (at the Olympic Games in Montreal). I won a bronze medal in really tough conditions.”

“I remember we never saw the Russian athletes until just before going out on to the stadium track. They were training in some remote location. My coach and I were out training every day, and we looked around and each wondered, ‘where are the Russians?’ They did not show up until we were walking under the tunnel of the stadium. They suddenly appeared out of nowhere and walked on to the track with us. I remember thinking ‘wow.’ We learned very quickly that they do things very differently behind the iron curtain, and that the pressure to win was very, very important to their country.”

“I remember being cheated in the shot put. They measured my distance wrong. It was very obvious that they did. My coach was in the stands. We could not do anything (protest) because we did not speak Russian. An official said ‘nyet, nyet, nyet’. I remember going “Holy Dinah!” Who knows what that difference would have made in terms of points? It might have got me a silver medal or a gold. There was a bit of cheating going on during the 1970’s. Looking back, I know I was the only drug-free athlete. There was a lot of doping going on because there was really no random testing. My major competition were the East Germans and the Russians and we have since learned that they were training within a state-sponsored doping program. There was a lot of pressure for them to be a part of the program and represent their country.”

Q: Then in 1980, Team Canada decided to follow the United States lead and boycott the Olympic Games when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. I understand you received death threats when you considered representing Canada at the Olympic Games in Moscow as an individual. You ultimately decided not to compete. How difficult was it for you at the time to have the 1980 Olympic experience taken from you, when you were a strong medal contender for Canada in women’s pentathlon?

A: “My husband John, my coach Lyle Sanderson, his family, and I decided to move to New Zealand, and train with another pentathlete, a friend of mine. We wanted to get away from the media because I was a legitimate Olympic medal contender. That came out of my performance at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. Winning the gold medal was nice. However, for me, the more important thing was that I scored 4768 points, which helped me rank number one in the world. That really confirmed to me two years before the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, I was on the right track. My training was going really well and I was a legitimate contender.”

“Lyle and I decided to move our families to New Zealand for the winter. We were away from all of the brainwashing that was happening back home in the media. When I got the phone call on April 23, we were just heading out the door to train. It was Corey Elliott of CFRN radio station in Edmonton. He asked me what I thought about the decision. I said, ‘what decision?’ He then told me that Canada has agreed to go along with the boycott. Typical me, I was very honest with my opinions. I knew it was wrong.”

“The fact that Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979 was no surprise to the world leaders. United States President Jimmy Carter would have made a stronger statement to Russia and the rest of the world, by not allowing his athletes to compete in the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid in February. He waited for the Olympic Winter Games to be done with before announcing a summer boycott. I remember saying, ‘really?’

At the time, there were two television channels in New Zealand, When John and I watched the news and saw the American athletes at the White House, I remember saying, ‘I just cannot imagine what they are feeling. How disappointing is this?’ Well, a month later we (Canada) made the same decision. I spoke out against the boycott and got raked over the coals for it. No one else was speaking out like I was. I guess it was easier because I was not living in Canada. I remember CBC flew Knowlton Nash of the National all the way down to Auckland to interview me.”

“I remember my major sponsor, Jamie Gardiner from Toronto phoned me. He said, ‘unless you retract your statement, I cannot support you anymore.’ I said ‘well, it’s ok Jamie. We are still allowing Aeroflot fought planes to land in Gander, and we are still trading wheat with the Russians.’ I lost my major funding. My mom was phoning. She said, ‘quit saying what you are saying. Everyone is calling you a communist.’ John was called a communist lover on the football field, and the Edmonton Eskimos received (criticism) as well. Eskimos head coach Hugh Campbell supported me. John and I were talking about this just the other day. When he was throwing out all the hate mail he remembered getting one letter, like you see on television with the murder shows, where there are cut-out letters from a magazine. We got one of those that was threatening my life. It was a really crazy time! My friend Karen in New Zealand also spoke out against the boycott, and her family was getting bomb threats.”

“Four-time Olympian Abby Hoffman, who was with the International Association of Athletics Federations at the time, phoned me in the middle of June and said, ‘Diane, you have been invited to the Games by the Russian organizing committee.’ I said, ‘really?” I cannot remember at that time if other athletes were invited. I told Abby I had to get back to her on this. I really thought long and hard about it. There was also a risk about me getting out of Canada alive. Someone might have popped me off. I reluctantly said, ‘no.’ Five years later, thinking a bit more courageous, I wish I had said yes. Certainly, at the time, it would have been the first time in the history of the Olympic Games that athletes would have participated and not represent their country. To this day, I still believe the decision was wrong. Over the years, many people thought I made the right decision. I had a lot of friends in the media, and they were raking me over the coals. I understood where they were coming from, but I never backed down.”

Q: In 1980 in winning the gold medal, Nadezhda Tkachenko set a world record at the time with 5083 points. Was your personal best the 4768 points you earned in winning gold with a Canadian record at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton?

A: “You have once again done your homework. I literally never knew Nadezhda’s final score. You know what Jeremy, I will be very honest with you. There was no drug testing going on at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, so that score came while being doped. I can honestly say that. I know they were (the Soviets) on a doping program. Two weeks later in Germany, I beat them all. It wasn’t only that, but Nadezhda apparently ran a time of 2:05 in the 800 metres at the Games. At the time, Nadezhda was not built like an 800 metre runner. She was very stocky and very muscular. Canada’s top 800 metre runner at the time, would have been around the two-minute mark. Two weeks later in Germany, she only ran a time of 2:20. You do not lose 15 seconds in two weeks. She looked horrible, and all of them (the Soviets) looked horrible.

I remember Jane Frederick of the United States and I met the Russian pentathlete Katerina Smirnova who had the wold record prior to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and she was left off the team. She was at the meet in Germany, so we had the opportunity to ask her. She had chosen not to be part of the drug program and was left off the team. So, when you tell me that Nadezhda had more than 5000 points. That is not a true number at all. It doesn’t mean a thing. There were probably no doping tests there. The event in Germany would have been a meet that they would have got tested. It (5083 points) is not even a number I would recognize. I’m not sure how many points I would have scored in Moscow, but I was primed and ready. I was healthy mentally and physically to perform really, really well. There are a lot of interesting stories around that time.” (According to Andy Shaw of MacLean’s, the 4768 points Jones Konihowski had at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton was a personal best).

Q: The World Athletics Championships did not start until 1983. At the time, the biggest competitions outside the Olympic Games were the Commonwealth Games and Pan American Games. Tell me about your experiences at both of these international competitions and winning three gold medals overall.

A: “The Pan American Games in the 1970’s were an important competition and the United States always sent strong teams. There were many Olympians competing. A lot of countries today do not send their best athletes to the Pan American Games because the majority of sports do not use them as an Olympic qualifier. It is common that countries will send their B and C teams to the Pan American Games. During my time as an athlete, the Pan American countries sent their best athletes. So when I won the two gold medals at the Pan American Games (in 1975 in Mexico City and in 1979 in San Juan, Puerto Rico), I beat the top athletes from the Americas, including the United States and Brazil. I put a lot of value into those gold medals.”

“In 1978, it was weaker competition. Because my competition from the United States, (Soviet Union), and Germany were not there. Great Britain had some good athletes, but for me, it was not about the medal, it was about the points. The points score of 4768 points, ranked me number one in the world. Two weeks later, Tkachenko won the women’s pentathlon at the 1978 European Women’s Athletics Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia, with 4744 points, but was disqualified for testing positive. That was another confirmation she was on drugs. I was a drug-free athlete.”

Q: You competed in an era of the pentathlon. Women’s heptathlon started at the World Championships in 1983. Do you ever think about how you could have done against your primary competition if there was a women’s 200 metre race, women’s 800 metre race, and javelin, like there is now?

A: “After the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, it went from a pentathlon to a heptathlon. I competed in a couple of heptathlons. I was going to defend my Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1982 in Brisbane. However, I got pregnant and gave birth to my oldest daughter, Janna. So, I could not defend my title, even though heptathlon was a new event. I then started to get into coaching high-performance athletes at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. I was a good javelin thrower, but I was not blessed with fast muscles, so the 200 metres was not a great event for me. I was very happy when I could run 800 metres instead of 200 metres. I was a much better middle-distance runner than a sprinter. I think I would have been an OK heptathlete, but I knew in my mind by 1980, it was time to start a family, get a job, get a career, give back to sport by coaching in Saskatoon. I had been on the national team for 17 years. I was 33 when I retired. It was time.”

Q: I last interviewed you about eight months after the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. What was it like for you to represent Canada as a chef de mission at those Olympic Games?

A: “It was an amazing honour to apply for the position and then to be chosen. I was on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Olympic Committee from 1996 to 2010. At the time the President of the Canadian Olympic Committee was Bill Warren, and he was really in favour of putting athletes on the mission staff. He was the Chef de Mission for Canada at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer and named three Olympians to the Mission staff. They were alpine skier Laurie Graham, figure skater Michael Slipchuk and myself. Now the Chef de Mission are Olympians. It is important for athletes to see their peers in a leadership role at a major Games. I do not remember who the Chef de Missions were when I competed at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Rower (and Canadian Olympic gold medalist) Marine McBean is the Chef de Mission for Canada at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Kudos to the Canadian Olympic Committee for involving the athletes, engaging them, and having them part of the process.”

Q: I actually see a lot of comparisons between athletes today and athletes from 40 years ago, and their struggles just to have the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games. What do you think will happen with the Olympic Games in Tokyo?

A: “We are living in a really strange time right now, aren’t we? This is so surreal. We do not even know what our life is going to be like come September. We don’t know what is going to unfold even by the end of this year. We don’t know so many things. There are so many unknowns that it is hard to plan. I am not feeling good about Tokyo, even next year. Even the 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee Chief Executive Officer Toshiro Muto (cannot guarantee) it will happen. They have a population of almost 14 million people. They will have millions of people come to the Olympic Games from all over the world. There’s no way one year from now they are going to be able to welcome the world.”

“I am thinking we will have the summer and winter Olympics in the same year, like we had up until 1992. That year we had Albertville in February, and Barcelona in the summer. I think you have to take a look at 2020 as a lost year. I do not think 2021 will happen for the Olympics. It is probably in discussion now. We know we can have the Winter and Summer Olympics in the same year. We know it can happen. Tokyo is ready. I feel so sorry for them. I also feel sorry for those athletes who will be competing in the Olympic Games for a final time. They are older. They have a couple of Olympics behind them. This was going to be their swan song and holding on to another year is going to be difficult. Another two years may be impossible. I don’t know. I just really don’t know how the rest of the year is even going to unfold. Athletes cannot even train properly. No athlete wants to go to an Olympic Games just to go to another Olympic Games. They want to go and perform their best. If they can’t prepare properly, they won’t feel good about going. They just won’t want to be there.”


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