Arriving in Guyana to teach a course on coaching techniques in June 1996, heptathlete Linda Blade discovered that she was a bit short of equipment. So she did what anyone who is familiar with the tropics and developing countries would do. She went to the nearest bamboo grove and cut vaulting poles; she turned empty coconut shells into shots for the shot put; she made discuses out of clay, proving that ingenuity is as important as athletic know-how for the lecturers in the Worldwide Development Program of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF).
"You're going to run into difficulties," says Blade, a former Atlantic Coast Conference champion in the heptathlon who became certified three years ago to teach the IAAF Level 1 course for track and field coaches. The pay isn't great—$1,000 per 16-day course. But like most of the 350 IAAF lecturers from around the world, Blade isn't in it for the money.
"I love track and field," says Blade, 35, a resident of Edmonton who devotes part of each summer to the clinics. The rest of the year she's an assistant coach at the University of Alberta and teaches phys ed at North American Baptist College. "And it's a way to educate myself about the world."
It's not always an easy education. In Sri Lanka last year the threat of civil unrest was so intense that Blade was advised to return home before her course began. She chose to stay but had to teach in a stadium protected by armed guards.
That didn't faze Blade. Growing up as the daughter of Canadian missionaries in Bolivia, she lived through at least three revolutions. When she was nine years old, she and her family were detained by rebels in the Amazon jungle after the plane they were on had an instrument failure and landed on a rebel-held airstrip.
In 1995 Blade spent 10 days teaching 30 female coaches in Tehran It was the IAAF's first women's-only course, developed so that the participants wouldn't have to wear the hijab, the black robe and scarf required of Islamic women when men are present.
"My trip to Iran changed me," says Blade, whose attitude about women and sports had always been, "Sport is sport. Why bring gender into it?" On one occasion in Tehran a male soccer team tried to bully the women in Blade's class out of using the field house that they had booked for a workout. Only the presence of a Western woman who wasn't intimidated by them kept the men from succeeding. The women were given access to one of Tehran's few outdoor stadiums at only the hottest time of the day, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Dressed in hijab because they could be seen by maintenance men, "we were melting," Blade says. She had the security guards clear the maintenance staff from the field so that she and her students could work out in shorts.
What surprised Blade most in Iran was what she saw as a tacit acceptance of the modesty laws, even by those who had been active in sports before the revolution, when women were permitted to train and compete wearing shorts, regardless of who was watching. "I wanted to change them," Blade says, "but you can't. They're in a constant struggle. They have to resolve within themselves the conflict between their religious constructs and their desire to be in sport."
"Linda is now one of the best-known sports ladies in Iran," says IAAF development director Bjorn Wangemann, who coached Blade, then 15, to the 1977 Bolivian championship in the high jump, long jump, 100-meter hurdles and pentathlon. "She did a perfect job in Tehran. I hope we can send her back because they all want her."
They'll have to wait. Blade is pregnant with her first child, due in January. But she'll be ready to go again soon after. "They can send me back anytime they want," she says.