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Sunday, August 29, 2004

Where Have all the Medals Gone? 

So, I watched some CBC news this evening, and it turns out Canada's Olympic medal count constitutes a crisis for Canadian sport.

It surprised me not one bit to find out that the major culprit was, according to the Canadian Olympic Committee and others, insufficient government funding.

Now, let's be clear: we're not talking big dollars either way. This short article nails down the three key numbers: current federal government spending for athletes is $16M, Dick "WADA" Pound figures $50M would be about right, and Australia, poster child for Olympic overachievement, budgets $98M for what the article calls "high-performance athletes."

Okay, so let's just assume that nothing aside from a good-sized pile of money stands between Canada and substantial Olympic-medal-count improvements, and let's further agree for the moment that a $50 million athlete fund is not going to starve any important government operation. It's spit in the ocean when seen beside health care funding or, um, whatever else the feds still have responsibility for [the military, maybe? -ed I'd hardly call that responsible -RjC].

Even assuming all that, who cares? Who gives a good gosh darn if Canada came home with one, ten, or all the medals? Will it improve national pride in some civically useful way? Will it make all the fat kids faster, higher, and stronger? Well, hopefully not higher, unless they take up a jumping event. Will anyone even notice aside from the biennial fortnight when other countries kick sand on Canada in beach volleyball and leave us for dead in biathlon?

The counter-argument that makes sense here is that elite achievement drives grassroots participation, and Canada is a nation that could collectively stand to get off the couch, run around a little, and lose a few pounds. My brother-in-law with the hockey-school business claims that his business sees a noticeable correlation with how well the Canucks do in the playoffs. It seems reasonable to conclude that something similar would happen in other sports after the Olympic games.

Please also keep in mind that I come at this as an avid latecomer to serious competitive sports. I participate in what could be called beer-league bicycle racing, except that even at my rather unexalted level of performance, a fairly decent level of fitness is necessary to play. I think sports and athleticism, in general, are good things, and a healthy part of life which most people ought to make some time for, both as children and adults.

But I still have a hard time believing that elite achievement in the Olympics is an important measure of anything. Australia kicks our butt in Olympic sports, but begs the question: which came first, the substantial sport funding or the sports-mad populace?

Canada may be well-served by programs that encourage people to get up and run around. Funding Olympic achievement may be a good way to make that happen. But I think that's the only useful rationale for increasing sports funding. Arguments revolving around national pride are lame. If we have $34 million handy, I suggest we add it to the Armed Forces budget, though I encourage you to imagine your own underfunded hobbyhorse instead.

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