Former Leoville principal shares Olympic moment as pinnacle of sport
Yves Côté never forgets his connection to Saskatchewan, even though his passion for badminton has taken him to some of the biggest and best sporting events the world has to offer.
Côté recently returned from the Summer Olympics in Tokyo where he held the top spot in the world as one of only four referees for badminton. A total of 41 players from 36 nations played for an Olympic medal.
“It was the absolute best badminton that could be played anywhere on the planet, and I had the best seat in the house,” said Côté, who spent 30 years as a teacher and principal in Leoville, Saskatchewan before retiring and returning to the Gaspé region of Quebec five years ago to be closer to family.
Côté is part of an elite group of referees certified by the World Badminton Federation. He is one of 12 people in the world to reach the lofty status and the only Canadian. When he received the designation, he was one of only three in the entire Pan American Zone. Referees are the top officials, fully in charge of the competition, ensuring that the facilities and conditions meet standards. They are also responsible for the tournament schedule.
A keen storyteller, Côté recalled receiving the news on December 7, 2018, that he was one of just four referees invited to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which took place from July 23 to August 8, 2021. He is the first Canadian to receive the honour and was joined by three other Canadians as officials in other capacities.
“I was very, very excited. From that point on, I was on a high. Every tournament that I went to was getting bigger and bigger. When I arrived over in Tokyo, I was wowed. For two and a half years I was riding so high that I had to pinch myself to make sure I was in the right place,” said Côté, who played amateur badminton in elementary and high school before moving into coaching and eventually officiating. “The best thing in this for me is that I was chosen by my peers. If that’s not the ultimate, then I don’t know what is.”
Côté has travelled to 29 different countries for badminton, including the World Junior Championships and the World Team Championships. Many of those trips have been to Asia, which is widely considered a hotbed for high-level badminton. But for Côté, nothing compares to the Olympics.
“The first morning in Tokyo at breakfast I cried. I was taking in the moment, the emotion was overwhelming, it was just everything that I had spent a lifetime working towards,” shared Côté.
Côté first moved to Saskatchewan from Quebec to teach French in 1984. He was initially offered a two-year contract but, feeling a strong sense of community, stayed for 30 years. During his career in the small community of Leoville, population 375, Côté grew the badminton club to over 100 members.
Leoville is where Côté took his first badminton officiating training course in 1992 before becoming a national arbiter, followed by an international arbiter.
He was guided by Jean-Guy Poitras to become a referee so that he could eventually make his Olympic dream a reality.
“I was very fortunate to be with Living Sky School Division because there were probably 75 to 80 days that I got granted from the school board to officiate, go to tournaments and train people from all over Canada and the world. I was extremely fortunate to have the unbelievable and continuous support of the school division.”
Côté recalled how the enormity of the Olympics caught up with him upon his return to Canada.
“When I came back home, I literally hit the wall. I was just so tired,” explained Côté.
That was when he decided to make a 14,000-kilometre cross-Canada trek to visit a friend in Whitehorse. It was a trip that, of course, included an important stop in his adopted home of Leoville, approximately 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. Côté was invited by the vice-principal to speak to students about setting goals and his Olympic experience.
“My dream was to be able to go to the Olympics. I didn’t live in a big centre, I lived in a tiny community, but I wanted students to know that it’s possible that one day you can achieve a very big dream. I told the students that to make it to the highest possible competition in the world, the one thing you have to do is follow your dreams always. Do everything you can to follow your dreams. It’s not just today, it’s not just tomorrow, it’s a long-term project,” said Côté.
“From the time I started to officiate in badminton, it took me 29 years to get to the Olympics.”
Due to regulations that referees must automatically retire at 65 years old, the Tokyo Olympics will remain 63-year-old Côté’s only Olympic experience.
Looming retirement, however, isn’t slowing him down. For now, he is continuing to referee across the globe and, fittingly for a longtime educator, is looking forward to mentoring the next generation of badminton officials. For Côté, it seems like the best possible combination of education and a passion for sport.
“Architects build bridges, doctors take care of people, but I get to coach and teach the world.”