The Canadian sports scene lost a titan Monday with the passing of 51-year-old Toronto Star sportswriter Randy Starkman after a battle with pneumonia. Starkman had one of the most difficult beats out there, covering amateur sports athletes who were frequently overlooked between Olympics, but he dominated it for decades, winning National Newspaper Awards in 1993 and 1995, claiming the Sports Media Canada Sportswriter of the Year in 2010 and writing incredible stories on everything from the aftermath of tragic ski accidents to water polo concussion epidemics to Ben Johnson's second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. Starkman's consistent excellence won him the respect and admiration of journalists across Canada, and his courageous decision to take his multi-decade battle with depression public and discuss depression in sports with TSN's Michael Landsberg proved incredibly inspirational for many. Readers across Canada chimed in on Starkman's loss Monday, and his name was trending nationwide on Twitter for much of the afternoon. Perhaps the most notable tributes Monday were the outpourings of loss from athletes he covered, though. Starkman was never afraid to take on tough issues or criticize when warranted, but he still developed an amazing rapport with the athletes he covered, and their comments Monday demonstrate just how much his presence will be missed in the Canadian sports landscape.
One of the most notable tributes Monday came from Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden, a three-time Olympic medalist who Starkman covered for much of the last decade. Here's the key part of van Koeverden's post:
Six months ago Randy Starkman came up to Algonquin Park for an interview with me at my little cabin. We finished up with the questions early so I invited him to stay for a little while. We sat on my little crooked dock, drank a coffee and had a bowl of the previous night's beef stew that I warmed up for us over the fire. We had a great time together, just chatting and shootin' the breeze about anything and nothing for a few hours in Ontario's most famous provincial park. Randy didn't just write about amateur sport, he truly loved it. He was a steadfast devotee. He loved us, and we loved him right back. Randy went out for a paddle with his camera afterwards. I wish I took him up on the invitation to paddle around with him. I had some painting to do, so I passed. I regret that now, the painting could have waited.
He encouraged me to write more when I told him I really enjoyed tapping away on the keyboard. He read our little athlete blogs religiously, and we, the athlete community, never missed one of his articles. I'll often pick up the Star just to flip to the middle of the sports section to see what he was on about. He was our fan, our colleague and our friend. My hands are shaking and there are tears streaming down my face, but I feel like the best and only way for me to say "Thank You Randy", for your over 25 year commitment to us, is to write about it.
Starkman's career touched an incredible amount of lives, and his passing shocked and devastated many Canadian athletes. Women's hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser paid tribute to him on Twitter Monday, writing "Choking back the tears on the news of Randy Starkman's death. Not only amazing reporter, but friend. My heart goes out to his wife and daughter." and "Very few media types in Canada took the time to invest and care in Canadian sports like Randy. So much respect....ull be truly missed." Former Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey chimed in with a touching tribute, writing "Today, the world lost one of the best amateur sport journalists and all around good guy." Former women's soccer star Kara Lang wrote "Saddened to hear the news about Randy Starkman. Always an enjoyable interview and a wonderful journalist. He will be missed," cross-country skier Devon Kershaw said "So very sad to hear that Randy Starkman passed away. He was truly/deeply passionate about sport, believed in us all & a wonderful person," and gymnast Alexandra Orlando wrote "So incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of Randy Starkman, a true friend + has been there since I was just a teen."
It's also notable how many media types were deeply touched by Starkman's passing. Over his decades in the industry, which started in 1980 when he left the journalism program at what's now Ryerson University for United Press Canada and continued after he joined the Star in 1988, he made a deep impression on both colleagues and competitors. Cam Cole, Michael Grange, Bruce Arthur, John MacKinnon and innumerable others all weighed in on how much they'll miss Starkman, but one of the most notable tributes came from the journalist's long-time Star colleague Rosie DiManno. Here's part of what she had to say:
At the Games, on the amateur sports beat, Randy knew it all, a veritable encyclopedia of facts and history; a human rolodex, his contacts in that world unmatched by any reporter. Athletes trusted him, respected him and always went to him first when there was a story to tell. As competitive as the next news hound, Randy would nevertheless share his numbers and his insights — after being the first to press with whatever was breaking. Mostly he was pleased when amateur athletes were getting any media attention. Unlike the rest of us, who dipped in and out of that beat, hogging headlines at the big spectacles, Randy was perpetually there, on it, day-in and day-out. It took more graciousness than I could ever have summoned to make way for big-footing columnists.
That cuts to a lot of what made Starkman so special, and to the void his passing leaves on the Canadian sports scene. Olympic sports don't tend to draw a lot of attention in the years between Summer and Winter Games, and the beat's an incredibly difficult one, requiring an encyclopedic knowledge across sports, but often getting buried in favour of the latest professional sports news. Many people start with amateur sports before taking positions on more prominent beats or as general sports columnists, and Starkman reportedly had plenty of opportunities to do that, but elected to stay with what he loved. As former Olympic gold medalist swimmer and 2012 London Olympics Canadian chef de mission Mark Tewksbury told the Star, Starkman's passing means the Canadian Olympic sports scene has lost one of its most notable voices and advocates, and he won't be easy to replace.
"He's just one of a kind in our world," Tewksbury said. "There was no bigger advocate for Olympic sports, Olympic athletes than Randy. There's now just a huge void."