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athlete and musician Sylvia Sweeney

by DG Graham | October 3, 2002

Sylvia Sweeney is a woman who decided not to focus on one thing and make it her lifelong ambition to excel at it. Instead, she focused on a lot of different things at different times and excelled at all of them. She was Most Valuable Player in the world while playing for Canada’s national basketball team. She played piano and cello at a concert level. She was a sports reporter and sportscaster. She produced her own film and worked on several others. She speaks English, French and Italian.

Sylvia says that she has been criticized by some people for not being focused enough. How anyone can criticize someone who is the Most Valuable in the world as not being focused enough is beyond me. What do they expect? Most Valuable in the universe? Only beauty pageants seem able to transcend our planet earth, and I haven’t figured out how they can defend the Miss Universe pageant as unbiased when the only entrants are from the same planet.

I like her approach for lots of reasons, but mostly because it goes against the current trend of specialization. We’re told that specialization is the key to landing a successful job and leading a successful life. Liberal arts degrees are sniffed at as useless and impractical. Looking at a resumé, an employer would rather see five jobs in the same field than five of different kinds. “Sorry, but you just don’t have enough experience.” For some reason, they don’t care that you’re articulate, quick off the mark and capable of learning in a very short time. You’re not programmed right. In my opinion, we’re encouraging the development of task-specific, uni-talented robots in human form. It’s computers we expect to be multi-tasking, not humans.

So, while Sylvia played basketball at the highest level possible, she also continued to play the piano and started exercising her considerable political skills. She is almost solely responsible for basketball taking hold in Australia (the result of an all-star event organized and promoted by Sylvia) and spearheaded an investigation into the wrongful dismissal of the coach of Canada’s Olympic team. Deciding that she liked the challenge of politics, she quit basketball and began sportscasting and lobbying the Société Radio Canada to change their hiring practices to ensure equal opportunity for all minority groups.

This led to a colleague at the CBC in Montréal suggesting that she combine her energies and skills to become a producer. Starting out slowly, she composed and performed the musical theme for CBC Newswatch. Then, she began freelancing as a producer, and teaching journalism and a course in media. At this point, she decided that she had mustered the experience and enthusiasm to really make a go at producing. So, Elitha Peterson Productions was born, with Sylvia at the helm. Just to keep those critics of her “lack of focus” happy, she also managed a band – Tchukon – which won the Star Search programme on NBC in 1986.

She was also keeping her journalism activities going. Having developed a friendship with the Mohawk people of Oka, she tried to bring the story of the unfolding tension to the programme W5. She was told that “nobody cared about stories about Native Peoples.” Bet the big cheese at W5 felt pretty stupid when Oka erupted into an international news story (I was in England for three years, and the only stories about Canada that anyone there heard about were Ben Johnson and Oka).

Something I haven’t mentioned about Sylvia yet is that her uncle is Oscar Peterson, the famous Canadian jazz pianist. I held off until now because there’s a tendency to define people by their relationship to other famous people, thereby undermining that person’s own accomplishments. For example, Paloma Picasso is almost always referred to as Pablo Picasso’s daughter, and Keifer Sutherland as the son of Donald Sutherland, and even Mrs. Milgaard is David Milgaard’s mother. So, this is my little attempt to establish Sylvia on her own achievements before mentioning her famous uncle.

But, famous he is, and he was the subject of Sylvia’s first film, In the Key of Oscar. The film was a documentation of Oscar’s life, and, in the course of it, Sylvia reunited him with a long-lost half brother and brought his family (of course, this was also her family) together as they had not been for years. The film was a success, and she went on to work on other projects, including Hymn to Freedom (a mini-series about the contributions of Blacks in Canada) and The Finish Line (a story about the famous Ben Johnson race).

Hold on here. She’s sounding a little focused in this burst of film-making, a little single-minded perhaps? Is she ... specializing? Luckily for my thesis: no. During her work on these cinematic projects, she headed the Women’s section of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, and became a Director of the Bitove group when that group was allowed to bring an NBA basketball team to Toronto (that would be the Raptors). So, there you go.

Sylvia Sweeney is a shining example of why specialization isn’t the only answer, or even the best answer. She’s accomplished more in such diverse areas as sport, music, business and politics than many specialized folk in their chosen areas ever will be. Her divergence of interests and her ability to bring passion to all of them is a great inspiration for people like me who are jills of all trades and, as yet, mistress of none. Of course, Sylvia is a mistress of all trades, which just shows that the criticism of being “unfocused” is completely ridiculous. In your face, robots.

resources for this story
  • The foregoing information was derived from Rosemary Sadlier’s excellent book, Leading the Way, Black Women in Canada, Toronto, Umbrella Press | 1994
  • Status of Women Canada provides excellent resources for Women’s History Month 2002. Click on WHM 2002 to find an historical overview of women and sports in Canada (with a good list of resources), as well as products (poster, fact sheets, virtual organizer’s tool kit) that may be downloaded or ordered.
  • The Dome of Silence: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport, by SANDRA KIRBY and others, Fernwood Publishing, Halifax | 2000
  • Celebrating Excellence: Canadian Women Athletes, by WENDY LONG, Polestar, Vancouver | 1995
  • Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality, by LAURA ROBINSON, HarperCollins Canada | 2002
  • She Shoots She Scores: Canadian Perspectives on Women in Sport, by LAURA ROBINSON, Thompson Educational Publishing | 1997
  • Canadian Women in Sport, a poster, is available from Green Dragon Press
  • Shooting Stars: The Story of the Edmonton Grads, National Film Board of Canada

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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