Remarks put mayor in 'pot of boiling water'

Lastman apologizes

Posted: Friday, June 22, 2001

TORONTO -- Toronto's bid to stage the 2008 Olympics was under renewed scrutiny Thursday after the city's mayor joked about fearing African snakes and cannibals.

Mayor Mel Lastman repeatedly apologized for the comments the day after they appeared in the Toronto Star, and bid officials and Canadian government leaders insisted they would not hurt the city's campaign.

But one senior African Olympic official said the remarks could cause IOC members to take another look at the entire Toronto bid package, which has been graded as one of the top three bids.

The story dominated the news Thursday, appearing on the front page of both national newspapers and the Star, the nation's largest-circulation daily.

In comments earlier this month to a free-lance reporter working for the Star, Lastman said he feared making a trip to Mombasa, Kenya, for a meeting of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa, where he was due to stump for the Toronto bid.

''What the hell would I want to go to a place like Mombasa?'' he was quoted as saying, adding that he feared snakes. ''I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.''

In his written apology late Wednesday, the mayor called the remarks a ''joke. ... I should not have made this comment.''

On Thursday, Lastman apologized repeatedly at a news conference, called to announce a fireworks' display planned for Canada Day.

''I am truly sorry and I'm going to say it again,'' Lastman said. ''I'm sorry that my comments were inappropriate and I want to apologize to everyone for my remarks, particularly to anyone who was offended by them.

''It was just the wrong thing to say and I'm sorry I made them. What do you want from me except I'm sorry. I apologize, I did the wrong thing.''

While Lastman's comments were perceived as poor and ill-timed jokes, they touched on racial and cultural issues that are particularly sensitive in Canada.

John Bitove, president and chief executive of the Toronto bid committee, said the effort to win the 2008 Games would continue with Lastman as part of the team.

''We've had a very successful bid and we're not going to get sidetracked on an issue like this now that he's expressed his remorse,'' Bitove said in an interview.

''Anyone who knows Toronto knows the strength of this city is its multiculturalism and its diversity and how proudly we wear that,'' he said. ''It's been one of the key features in our bid and it will continue to be a key feature in our bid.''

In Johannesburg, Dan Moyo, a senior official of South Africa's national Olympic committee, said he didn't think the comments would affect the bid, but added ''it will send a message that one will have to check again'' on the city's qualifications.

Moyo said the apology would be accepted if it is ''genuinely from deep in his heart. He should show some sensitivity and respect other cultures. If he is going to host other countries, he should be sensitive to other beliefs and cultures.''

African IOC members are expected to be the swing votes in a close contest for the 2008 Games.

Beijing, which lost the 2000 Games to Sydney, Australia, by two votes, is viewed as the favorite for 2008, with Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka, Japan, also bidding. The IOC will select the winning city on July 13.

Kip Keino, an Olympic champion now Kenya's IOC member, said the comments were ''entirely the views of an individual.''

''It has nothing to do with Toronto,'' Keino said. ''It's his own opinion. Human beings always have failures and successes. We take it lightly.''

Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in Stockholm for a summit meeting with European Union countries, said he didn't want to get involved in the issue. Others spoke out strongly.

David Kilgour, the secretary of state for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, called Lastman's comments a ''display of ignorance.''

''He has made a very serious mistake,'' Kilgour said. ''It certainly doesn't help when the highest elected official in the city goes out and insults the 750 million people who live on the continent of Africa in 53 countries.''

The National Post newspaper quoted Marx G.N. Kahende, Kenya's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, as saying that Mombasa has a large tourist trade and has attracted major international events.

''I don't know how he was elected, but it appears that something has gone very wrong since that time,'' Kahende said, according to the newspaper.

Lastman is in his second three-year term as mayor of Canada's largest city. A fast-talking, eye-winking former furniture salesman, he has been in politics for three decades.

Shortly after the+ election victory, Lastman held a hastily arranged news conference to reveal a 14-year extramarital affair he had decades earlier. His former mistress and her two adult sons are suing Lastman for $4 million, claiming Lastman is the father of the men and should have paid child support while they grew up.

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