Friday, January 29, 2010

Disgrace can't erase Fonyo's accomplishments

Poor Steve Fonyo. Something about that guy just breaks my heart.
Few things are more painful to watch than a long and very public fall from grace. Fonyo’s fall has been more painful than most, because he really was just an ordinary teen trying to do something positive when he set out to run across the country in 1984.
He accomplished something quite miraculous. Not only did he run all the way from St. John’s, Nfld. to Victoria - 7,294 kilometres in all - but he raised $13 million for the Canadian Cancer Society along the way. And it all took place just five years after Fonyo lost his leg to cancer at age 12.
Canadians loved Fonyo, at least for a little while. But he soon began to try our affections, starting with a drunk-driving conviction in 1987 and then a seemingly endless series of criminal convictions over the next 22 years for things like shoplifting, driving without a licence, and fraud.
The latest humiliation came this week, when Fonyo was stripped of his 1985 Order of Canada. He’s one of just four people to be removed from the Order in its 42-year history. For his sins, he now shares a place in Canadian history with NHL players’ agent Alan Eagleson, aboriginal leader David Ahenakew, and lawyer Sher Singh, all deemed to have brought the Order into disrepute through bad behaviour or criminal activities.
Timing is everything, and it’s unfortunate that in the period when Fonyo was preparing for his run, Canadians needed more than just a plucky one-legged teen running across the country for cancer. We needed a hero.
Terry Fox’s tragic story had captured the nation just three years earlier. We wanted Fonyo to be everything that Fox had seemed destined for.
Who could meet such a tall order? Certainly not Fonyo, who was just a kid when he suddenly found himself elevated to hero status following his 14-month run. He achieved what Fox had not been able to do (Fox died a year into his run), but couldn’t possibly live up to the myth.
Even the $13 million Fonyo raised with his cross-Canada Journey For Lives pales in comparison with the $24 million that Fox raised without ever completing his run, let alone the hundreds of millions raised in Fox’s memory since his death.
Fonyo enjoyed a few heady months caught up in the whirl of fame - riding in red Ferraris with George Harrison; meeting the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul; receiving the Order of Canada at the tender age of 18. But real life is no fairy tale, and Fonyo’s brief time in the limelight was over soon enough.
He tried to kick-start things again in 1987 with another fundraising run, this time across the United Kingdom. But the disastrous run raised just $115,000 and left Fonyo deep in debt.
His first conviction for drunk driving came later that same year, right around the time his car was seized due to unpaid bills. He was 20 years old and $36,000 in debt.
His ongoing problems with drugs and alcohol have been well-documented by the Canadian media. In fact, every bump in the road that Fonyo has encountered in the last two decades has been well-documented, to the point that it’s now the drunk and disorderly side of Fonyo that springs most easily to mind whenever his name comes up. The hero is no more.
What can you wish for a man like Fonyo?
We liked him well enough when he was a kid with a disability and a simple and compelling dream. But the full-grown man - warts and all - has been much harder to warm up to. His years of criminal behaviour have doubtlessly hurt many people, and he has put countless lives at risk by repeatedly driving drunk and without a licence.
Still, he did something amazing once upon a time. He’s a small-town B.C. boy who raised a staggering amount of money for cancer, and is still the only one-legged runner in history to run across Canada. I hope he still hangs onto the memory of that proud achievement in the midst of his latest disgrace.
Fonyo was reportedly devastated when he found out he was to be removed from the Order of Canada. A former boss at a Surrey auto-repair shop told the Vancouver Sun this week that it just seems wrong to do that to Fonyo.
“They gave him the Order of Canada based on his accomplishments, and they’re still there. It’s not like he didn’t do it, or lied about it,” says Satnam Singh Sidhu. “He finished his marathon and was an inspiration to a lot of people.”

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