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Olympic gold medalist aims to be a servant of the people


has spread that he is on their street. Now people are pulling back their curtains to sneak a look, kids are running to their front doors with scraps of paper to be autographed, while others pause from their yard work to consider the commotion the riding's provincial Liberal candidate is creating as he searches for votes.

It's not every day, after all, an Olympic gold medalist strolls through your neighbourhood.

"Hi," says the candidate, flashing his famous smile. "I'm Daniel Igali, the Liberal candidate for Surrey-Newton. And I'm looking for your support on May 17."

"I know who you are," says the woman at the door, smiling back. "Everyone knows Daniel Igali."

As they talk, a small entourage of media record the moment, straining to hear whether the resident of this upscale neighbourhood in a working-class riding 45 minutes east of Vancouver plans to vote for the famous Canadian in Tuesday's general election.

"You have my support," she says. "You're going to win."

If only it were that easy.

While recent polls indicate the provincial Liberals are heading toward a comfortable victory, Mr. Igali's political future is in question. There are probably a dozen ridings throughout the province that are too close to call and his is one. Mr. Igali's main challenger is New Democratic Party candidate Harry Bains, a prominent union executive with deep roots in this riding's Indo-Canadian community. That is significant. According to the last census, 54 per cent of the Surrey-Newton riding is made up of visible minorities; of that figure, 85 per cent are South Asian.

The Indo-Canadian community takes its politics seriously. Often the community votes depending on how its leaders size up a candidate. The deeper a candidate's tentacles are in the community, the better his or her chances are of getting elected. That being the case, the race in Surrey-Newton would seem to favour Mr. Bains. Except that Mr. Igali, while Nigerian by birth, has connections to the community of his own.

When he defected to Canada in 1994, he was provided a place to live by a prominent Indo-Canadian businessman from Surrey, Satnam Johal. It was Mr. Johal who introduced Mr. Igali to the game of kabaddi, described by many as a combination of tag and wrestling. Mr. Igali became a star in the sport, earning the nickname Toofon Singh -- which roughly translated means whirlwind in Punjabi.

When Mr. Igali won his gold medal in wrestling at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the loudest cheer he received at the Vancouver International Airport upon his return was from a boisterous group of Indo-Canadians.

"The Indo-Canadian community is one I've always felt completely at home with," Mr. Igali said in an interview. "They opened their homes up to me when I first came to Canada. They've always made me feel welcome, always made me feel I was part of their community as a whole. At the door, I'm getting that same feeling."

There were easier ridings in which Mr. Igali could have run, ones where he would have been virtually assured victory. But he insisted on running in the riding in which he lives, even though it is considered to be NDP-friendly.

The riding was represented for years by the Social Credit's Rita Johnston, that is until 1991 when the Socreds were booted out of office. The NDP's Penny Priddy would take the seat in the next two elections before it was swallowed up by the Liberals in 2001.

What's surprising, and yet not surprising, is how smoothly Mr. Igali has made the transition from Olympic athletic to passionate politician. He's approached the election campaign like he would a major wrestling meet, studying the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. He starts his days at 6 a.m. and finishes around midnight. If he loses it won't be because he was outworked.

Far from seeking a career in politics simply to put food on the table -- after years of being a starving athlete -- Mr. Igali appears to be have been inspired by some fairly old-fashioned values.

"I owe a lot to this country," he said. "I am so grateful for the opportunity Canada and British Columbia gave me to pursue my dreams. I believe politics should be an honourable profession. I also believe that politicians should be the servants of the people. I don't hear that word servant used much in connections with a politician's duties, but that's how I honestly looked at it."

You don't win gold medals wrestling unless you know how to scrap. And in B.C., you don't get to the provincial legislature if you don't know how to scrap either. That, too, is something Mr. Igali understood quickly. He can, without consulting a note, give you a complete rundown of Liberal accomplishments over the past four years and just as quickly recite how the NDP took the province to the "brink of ruin" during its 10 years in office.

When an NDP candidate in Surrey accused the Liberals of allowing the community's main hospital to become "something you'd find in a Third World country," Mr. Igali was indignant.

"What a ludicrous statement," he said. "First, it's an insult to all the hard-working nurses and doctors at Surrey Memorial. But secondly, he has no idea what he's talking about. I've been to Third World hospitals, believe me. We have no idea how lucky we are in this country."

Mr. Igali has been involved in plenty of wrestling matches where he needed some magical move in the final minute to pull off victory. In some ways, that's what he needs to help him win the fight he's in now -- a down-the-backstretch manoeuvre that will dispatch his opponent for good.

"Unfortunately," Mr. Igali said, "politics isn't like wrestling that way. In wrestling I controlled my own destiny, but in politics someone else does. I can work as hard as I can, but at the end of the day my fate is in the hands of the voters."

But our two-time Olympian is cool with that. "You know," he said, "whichever way it goes I will always consider this a highlight of my life. I've been a lucky man."

And one who's hoping his luck holds out a few more days.

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