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Ottawa Sports Pages Editorial (August 2012): Simply irreplaceable – Martin Cleary will never be matched in local sports news

By Dan Plouffe

Martin Cleary interviewed me once. It was following the one athletic “achievement” that people seem to remember me for in my lacklustre sports career. I’d just finished near the back of the pack in the high school senior boys’ 3,000 metres, but oh was that last 100 metres spectacular…

As a tribute to my beloved hockey team at playoff time, I was dressed in Ottawa Senators boxers, had a jersey draped over my bib number, and then I got a teammate to hand me a large flag that I carried down the homestretch to the finish line.

My name made it into the “sidelines” briefs, and you better believe how proud I was. My parents still have the newspaper clipping stashed away.

This memory flashed into my head as I read, with profound sadness, Martin’s farewell column in the Ottawa Citizen. It got me thinking about how many countless other people he’s touched with his care and devotion to amateur sports in our city – probably 99.9% of whom had far greater athletic achievements than myself.

But that’s a big part of what made Martin special. It wasn’t about grabbing a quote from the winner of the race and jotting down his time. He’d look for the cross-country runner who’d lost his shoe in the mud pit and had to run half the race barefoot. It was about capturing the spirit of an event, and asking questions to find out what really made the athletes tick.

It required a true passion for amateur sport – which never wavered over 39 years – and it involved genuinely caring about the participants involved. Nobody can possibly ever match Martin in that department.

“He’s almost the Ottawa sports community’s soul and conscience, isn’t he?” says Tom Casey, a retired former Citizen sports editor. “There wasn’t anybody in amateur sport that didn’t know Martin or Martin didn’t know them.

“He was so well respected and so well known. His list of contacts was beyond belief. And it’s not just the most glamorous amateur sports – like track-and-field and swimming – if you needed a name for a fencer, or water polo or modern pentathlete, Martin knew all about them.

“It’s a big hole for the Citizen, let me tell you. They’ll never be able to fill it, that’s for sure.”

Martin says the main reaction people have had to news of his retirement is sadness, and a worry that amateur sports news will fade further out of focus for the city’s largest daily.

That was one of my main worries too. Yes, the Ottawa Sportspage will always be committed to that group and is only growing, but there’s no doubt the Citizen is read by more people on a daily basis.

Losing Martin and his institutional knowledge will unquestionably be a major blow to the local amateur sports scene that deserves its spotlight, but it sounds like the beat won’t be totally abandoned.

“I think the paper will continue to take amateur sport as a serious beat,” Martin said by phone from home as he watched the Olympics without having to report on them for the first time in decades. “I’m sure it will be picked up. I don’t think they’ll be letting that go.”

Martin met with Gold Holder, primarily a golf columnist at the moment, before his departure about picking up the beat come the fall. And Martin doesn’t rule out writing here and there next year once he’s had some time to relax, maybe travel, and of course prepare for his daughter’s wedding in early September.

Martin believes “it was the right time to leave” the Citizen, and not because of the buyout package on the table due to Postmedia’s cuts, it was for his own health.

“I was kind of exhausted and tired,” Martin explains. “There were growing demands – and sometimes that came from me because I knew there were things out there that had to be covered, and I’d tackle them myself because there was no one else to do it.”

A local sports scene that’s grown tremendously in recent years, reduced staff, blogging, Tweeting and video – they all contributed to a greater workload on top of what was already a full-time job.

“It was getting to be a little too much to handle,” says the 2007 Ottawa Sports Awards media lifetime achievement award winner. “Already having had one heart attack (a few years ago), I didn’t need to have another.”

Take that as a sign of Martin’s passion. In the same manner that high-performance athletes are dedicated to their sports, Martin was devoted to being a high-performance amateur sports reporter. What he loved most was “the process – from start to finish.”

“It’s the people, really,” Martin adds. “I’ve had some wonderful people to work with – not only in our sports department, but out in the Ottawa sports community. They are a tremendous group of coaches, administrators and athletes who helped me along. I appreciate everything they did for me.”

And the Ottawa amateur sports community appreciates what you’ve done just as much. An adequate thank you is not possible.

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