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Sunday, October 1, 2000

Toronto 2008: Why bother?

 SYDNEY -- Am I the only one wondering why politicians of every political stripe are eager to spend billions of dollars on the 2008 Olympics in Toronto when Canada's performance at the Sydney Summer Games has been an international joke?

 I was thinking about this when I joined 100,000 other folks out at Stadium Australia the other day as Art Eggleton became the third federal cabinet minister to fly in from Ottawa to back Toronto's bid for the 2008 Games.

 I had not gone to the stadium to see Canadians run, jump or throw, that's for sure. During the entire four-hour evening program, which included several medal races and field events, as well as a score of heats and qualifying rounds, only one Canadian even competed.

 If I had wanted to cheer on my compatriots, I should have been born a Sri Lankan, a Lithuanian, a Slovak, a Bahamian, an Algerian, an Icelander, an Estonian - almost anything except a Canadian.

 Never, in my memory, had so few Canadians taken part in track and field events - still considered to be the top sports at the Olympics.

 While Canada's team in Sydney seems locked in a holding pattern over Moose Jaw, China has supported Beijing's Olympic dreams with the second highest national medal tally at these Games. The French team underscored Paris' candidacy for 2008 with a strong fourth here.

 One night after going to the track, I was at the Superdome to watch Canada's men's basketball team. With me was an old friend, Bev Smith, who played for Canada's women's team for more than a decade and is now the women's head coach. Bev is 40 and from Salmon Arm, B.C. She and her longtime teammate, Sylvia Sweeney, who now lives in Toronto, may be the best female basketball players that Canada has ever produced.

 To pursue their careers, both Smith and Sweeney, who were genuine world-class players, had to leave home. Bev ended up for years in Italy where she was a top pro player and later a coach. Sylvia, whose uncle is jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, was a hired gun in France.

 Unsuitable facilities

 Not much had changed in Canada while Bev was earning good money in Europe. She was shocked to discover this summer that her team could not find a suitable practice facility anywhere in the country. Those universities with good gyms were running summer camps for profit. So our national basketball team had to prepare for the Olympics in high school gyms with courts that were not the right size.

 "Why would anyone want Canada to host an Olympic Games when we have teams that have to put up with this?" Smith asked.

 Australia's women's team, which played the U.S. for the basketball gold medal, reached the final by playing between 35 and 40 games a year overseas. Almost all of its players live in Australia where they play in an intensely competitive national professional league.

 Canada, which did not make the final eight in Sydney, could only afford to play 11 games this year and 17 games last year. Three of those matches this summer were lopsided losses to the mighty U.S. women's team. As for a national league for women (or men) in Canada, there isn't one. Our best players either vegetate or head for Europe.

 "We're so uncomfortable with actually saying we're not doing nearly enough in sport because we're scared to be seen as whining, unthankful athletes," said Smith, who is contemplating returning to Italy as a coach because, understandably, she much prefers the European approach to elite sport over what she must endure at home.

 "We can qualify for the Olympics, but we can't do more than that. We shouldn't just come here to be here. We have to come here to achieve something."

 Smith and half a dozen other concerned Canadian national team coaches are not spending their last weekend in Australia tasting Sydney's many delights. They're brainstorming with each other to see if there is any way Canada can begin to climb out of this hole.

 It would be useful if the politicians so keen for Toronto to land the Olympic Games they have flown 15,000 km to Australia found a minute to drop by to hear about the true state of Olympic sport in Canada today.

 Blinded by their grandiose ambitions, it is doubtful they would be interested.