Jocelyn Charles Bjorn Lovell
Born: July 19, 1950 (Norwich, England)
Died: June 3, 2016 (Toronto, Ontario)
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame
Cycling Canada Hall of Fame
Jocelyn Lovell was a cyclist of flawless technique whose cocky, defiant temperament made him a champion on the track.
His nonconformist spirit also made him a target for his sport’s administrators with whom he feuded throughout his career.
Mr. Lovell claimed more than 35 national titles. On the world stage, he competed at three Olympics, claimed a world championship silver medal, and won six Commonwealth Games medals, four of them gold. His medal haul would likely been greater had he not been suspended for a prank involving a box of cookies.
The greatest Canadian cyclist of his generation nearly died in 1983 after suffering catastrophic injuries when run over by a dump truck while training. The accident left him a quadriplegic, forcing him to replace two wheels with four. His prickly nature undiminished, Mr. Lovell became a fierce advocate for finding a cure for spinal-cord injuries, a cause that dominated his life until his death earlier this month at 65.
Jocelyn Charles Bjorn Lovell was born on July 19, 1950, at Norwich, England, to Margit (née Petersen) and Anthony Lovell. The family moved to Canada when the boy was five, living in Saskatchewan, where his father was a schoolteacher, before settling in Toronto.
At age 16, he was named to the Canadian cycling team for the Pan American Games held in Winnipeg in 1967. Just nine days after his 17th birthday, he set a Canadian record in the 1,000-metre track sprint, finishing just 0.78 seconds behind the bronze medal winner.
The following year the teenager competed at his first of three Olympics, finishing a respectable seventh in the kilometre time trial though he was the youngest cyclist in the competition.
Mr. Lovell became a national sporting star with his performance at the 1970 British Commonwealth Games at Edinburgh, Scotland, winning a gold medal (10-mile race), a silver (tandem with Barry Harvey), and a bronze (time trial). The gold ended a 36-year drought for Canada in cycling at the competition. The young cyclist, who celebrated his 20th birthday during the games, won the race despite suffering painful cuts and bruises in a fall in a previous race.
Mr. Lovell was a Frisbee-tossing free spirit who marked his triumph at Edinburgh by commandeering a child’s tricycle for a victory lap around the track. He sported tattoos and an earring at a time when such decorations were still associated with deviancy.
He chafed at the dictates of the Canadian team’s managers and a youthful prank gave officials the opportunity they long seemed to desire to rein in their insubordinate star.
Late in 1973, the Canadian Cycling Association suspended the cyclist for six months, ensuring he could not compete at the upcoming Commonwealth Games to be held in New Zealand. The suspension was levied after administrators learned he had pilfered a box of cookies several months earlier while staying a hotel during a training session in France. (His room key opened a storage closet which included small boxes of cookies to be left on pillows as a bedtime snack. Mr. Lovell shared the box with teammates.) Incredibly, the cycling team manager originally demanded a lifetime ban for what became infamously known as “the cookie caper.”
“The Canadian government has spent about $30,000 helping me since 1967,” Mr. Lovell told the Toronto Star’s David Steen at the time. “It’s discouraging to be hung for a box of cookies. They weren’t worth more than 50 cents.”
The association taught Mr. Lovell a lesson, but at a cost. Canada failed to win a cycling medal at the 1974 Commonwealth Games.
On his return, Mr. Lovell accepted the stringent training regimen demanded by team officials, though he found lesser success on the track.
An Olympic title proved elusive at Munich in 1972 and, crushingly so, in Montreal in 1976, where a home audience desperate for a medal was disappointed by a 13th-place finish in the kilometre time trial at the Olympic Velodrome. Mr. Lovell was also part of a Canadian quartet that finished 11th in the men’s team pursuit.
By 1978, Mr. Lovell once again eschewed an established training schedule in favour of a return to his own freewheeling style.
“If I could look back eight, 10 years ago, I was young, green and could do darn near anything I wanted to and no one could hold me back,” he told the sports writer John Korobanik. “I didn’t think about my future at all. I was happy-go-lucky.”
The result was a trio of gold medals before a cheering home audience at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, cementing his reputation as an icon of the sport and undoubtedly inspiring a succeeding generation of cyclists.
Mr. Lovell was on a training run near his home on Aug. 4, 1983, when struck from behind by a dump truck on Britannia Road outside Milton, Ont. He suffered a broken neck, a fractured arm and pelvis, and a deep cut to his scalp. He fought for his life for several days before his condition stabilized.
Less than two years after his accident, Mr. Lovell addressed students at a Toronto nursing school about his own ill treatment in hospital, during which he suffered a broken arm while being turned over roughly by an orderly. He sometimes had to lay in his own excrement for hours at a time and once went more than a week without being given a bath.
No criminal charges were laid in the accident. Four years later, a settlement of a civil suit gave Mr. Lovell a $500,000 award for damages, as well as monthly payments of more than $4,000. His estranged wife Sylvia Burke, a world speed-skating champion, was provided $75,000 and the couple got $100,000 for legal costs.
The financial security provided Mr. Lovell a renewed ability to pursue a cure for spinal cord injuries. He was a critic of campaigns to raise money for rehabilitation, including that of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion, as Mr. Lovell insisted the only worthwhile initiative was in funding research to end paralysis. He led his tireless crusade as a chapter head of the Spinal Cord Society of Canada.
Mr. Lovell lived in a waterfront home in the Port Credit neighbourhood of the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Some of his cycling medals were embedded in a flagstone path on the property. He was known to give away medals to friends and acquaintances.
Mr. Lovell died in hospital on June 3 after suffering a heart attack. He leaves his second wife, the former Annie Sumner, known as Neil, whom he married in 2000. (Mr. Lovell liked to confound store clerks and repairmen by playing on his feminine first name and his wife’s masculine nickname.) He is also survived by a brother and two sisters.
The cyclist was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1985. Last year, he was part of the inaugural group of nine to be inducted into the Cycling Canada Hall of Fame, which is located at the Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton, a short ride from the site of his devastating accident.