How Ravi Kahlon’s Olympic experience is helping him in role as B.C. cabinet minister
Many politicians have photographs in their offices. Often, they are pictures of them receiving awards, greeting dignitaries or posing with celebrities.
On Ravi Kahlon’s wall hangs a framed newspaper photo of what he calls the “sad silver.” Taken during the men’s field hockey final at the 2003 Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic, it shows a shot bouncing off Kahlon’s stick into the Canadian net. The 1-0 loss to Argentina cost Canada the chance to compete at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“I always said I didn’t want that feeling again,” said Kahlon, the B.C. cabinet minister recently appointed to the job of leading the province’s COVID-19 pandemic recovery. “It’s my reminder that you’ve got to grind, that you’ve got to work hard. You can’t take things for granted.”
Kahlon played for the Canadian field hockey team that finished 10th at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Failing to qualify for the 2004 Olympics put his career at a crossroads. He stuck with the sport and was part of the team that won gold at the 2007 Pan Am Games to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Kahlon has been named minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation in Premier John Horgan’s NDP government. The province is predicting a deficit of $12.8 billion this fiscal year, mostly due to COVID-19.
The 41-year-old said the challenges he faced as an athlete will benefit him in his new role.
“What you learn in sport, and what is a direct correlation to the work I do now, is you become process focused and not outcome focused,” Kahlon said. “It’s easy to think I want to go the Olympics and win a gold medal. It’s much harder to think about the things you need to do to get there.
“I find myself conditioned, more than my peers who haven’t played organized sport, to think that way. I always think, what do I need to do today to get there? What do I need to do tomorrow? Have I done enough?”
Michael Mahood, a former national team goalkeeper, remembers Kahlon as someone with a “big, happy personality” who was always ready to stand up for a teammate, whether it was a veteran or a new player.
“He was a very cerebral player,” Mahood said. “He’s a curious soul, always has been. Loves to talk to others, listens to people, ask questions. He’s got this ability to get people to talk and be open with him because he just kind of makes you really comfortable. He just connects with people.”
Born and raised in Victoria, Kahlon dreamed of being a soccer player and competing at a World Cup.
“I realized after some years that maybe I’m not as good as I think I am,” he said.
Field hockey runs in Kahlon’s family. His grandfather played for the Navy team in India and his father was on track to join India’s national team before immigrating to Canada.
With no boy’s teams to play on, Kahlon’s first organized field hockey experience was with a girl’s squad.
“They beat me up so bad,” he joked. “I always say, I learned my toughness from that year.”
Kahlon started his national team career as a defender but eventually moved to forward.
“There’s not many guys that can go from the back to the front,” Mahood said. “He always kind of had the ability to see the situation from all vantage points and make the play accordingly.”
Rising above discrimination
Growing up, Kahlon also tasted discrimination. His father was denied work at a mill because he wore a turban.
“We heard the word Paki, you didn’t realize it was racist because you heard it so much,” he said. “You look back and you’re like ‘man, that was bad’ but at the time you didn’t know any different.”
At the Beijing Olympics, Kahlon purchased red fabric so the Sikh members of the field hockey team could wear turbans to the opening ceremony.
Mahood said the team fully supported the idea but some members of the Canadian Olympic Committee were not happy.
“It was the strangest thing ever,” Mahood said. “It was totally mind-boggling crazy . . . that it was at all an issue.”
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After retiring from field hockey following the 2008 Games Kahlon spent seven years in banking, and then six as director of stakeholder relations for the New Democrat caucus. He was first-elected in the riding of Delta North in 2017.
Kahlon knows there will be challenges in reviving the economy but believes it will be possible through teamwork.
“I have lots of confidence in our collective effort to help us get through this,” he said. “During COVID, you actually see how strong we are as a people, as communities [and] as a province.
“It’s going to be hard. I’m not naive to think we’re going to flip a switch and everything is going to be back to normal. I do feel like we’re going to get there.”