Sylvia Sweeney is “Canada’s first lady of basketball.” She was born in Montréal, the daughter of
railway cook James Sweeney, and music and piano teacher Daisy Sweeney (née Peterson),
whose brother was the legendary pianist Oscar Peterson.
Sweeney is a talented musician as well as a gifted athlete. She love of basketball grew from
watching her sister play. As a teen, Sweeney would ride her bike around Montréal, looking for
pick-up games. She’d challenge boys to a one-on-one match and invariably, she’d win – much to
the boys’ chagrin, no doubt!
In 1973, Sweeney began her studies in music at McGill University’s Department of
Performance, specializing in classical piano. But joining the McGill Martlets basketball team
opened other opportunities to Sweeney – this time, to compete in the sport she loved. She went
on to make the provincial team.
In 1974, Sweeney joined the Canadian National Team, and was a member until 1984, and was
Team Captain from 1979 on. In 1976, she competed at the Summer Olympics in her home town
of Montréal, where women’s basketball made its Olympic debut. The Team finished sixth in
After the 1976 Olympics, Sweeney played for the national finalist team Concordia Stingers
(1977) and the Laurentian University Lady Vees (1978–1979), where she won the collegiate
championship in 1979. During those years, she studied communications at Concordia University
(1976-1977), French at the University of Sherbrooke (1977-1978), and philosophy and
jurisprudence at Laurentian University (1978-1979), all of which served her well in her later,
highly successful career in broadcasting and production.
In the 1979 World Championships in Seoul, it became obvious Sweeney was one of the best
players in the world. She led Canada to a bronze-medal finish – the first medal the Canadian
Women had earned in a World Championships – and was named the tournament’s Most
Valuable Player. At the 1979 Pan American Games in Mexico, Sweeney had the honour of
carrying Canada’s flag at the opening ceremony. She went on to win a bronze medal. Also in
1979, she won a bronze medal at the 1979 World Student Games in Mexico.
Canada boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, but when Sweeney had the opportunity
to compete again, she led one of Canada’s most talented teams to a fourth-place finish in the
1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – Canada’s best-ever finish ever at a Summer Games. This
marked the last time Sweeney competed for Canada at a major event.
In 1994, Sweeney served as a member of the local organizing committee for the 1994 Men’s
World Championships in Toronto, as director of the Toronto Raptors, and as assistant chef de
mission for the Canadian team at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Sweeney was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994, Canadian Olympic
Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Québec Mérite Sportif Hall of Fame in 2000.
Each year, Canadian Interuniversity Sport and TSN present the “Sylvia Sweeney Award” to a
Canadian woman university basketball player who best exemplifies the values of athletics,
academics and community involvement. The 2023 recipient is Aliyah Fraser of New Glasgow,
Nova Scotia. Fraser attends St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.
Sweeney also became one of the first Black women on the CBC and CTV television networks,
where she has worked as a researcher, journalist, anchor, and sportscaster. She founded
Elitha Peterson Productions Incorporated, a motion-picture production company in Toronto. She
produced several award-winning documentaries, and in 2002, was named an executive producer
at the National Film Board of Canada. Her 1992 documentary, In the Key of Oscar, told the story
of her famous uncle Oscar Peterson.
Sweeney’s love of the arts has led her to many significant accomplishments. For example, she
has produced many award-winning documentaries and established her own production company.
In 2008, she produced the Marriage of Excellence concert series, broadcast in China, and
featuring artists with disabilities in performances between the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
She founded the ArtsGames, a celebration of the world’s finest artists in five different art forms:
media arts, literature, visual arts, dance and music.
In 2017, Sweeney was named as a Member of the Order of Canada, as an outstanding athlete and
for her creative leadership in the arts.
In a 2021 interview, Sweeney said, “…walking all these decades, through the various stages of
racial issues that have not really changed a lot and what I try to say is that you have to build
bridges to understanding. … So that’s where education comes in.”
(Sources: Canada Basketball (basketball.ca), Wikipedia, Sports Information Resource Centre,
The McGill Tribune)
Photo credit: https://olympic.ca/team-canada/sylvia-sweeney/