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Thursday, September 21, 2000

Little Canuck glory at these Games

This nation has not fared so poorly at a Summer Olympics since Montreal in 1976


 SYDNEY -- The Games of the 27th Olympiad are now one-third finished. By any measure, Canada's performance so far is a national disgrace.

 O Canada has only been played once in Sydney and that was an accident of sorts. There was not much expectation that Simon Whitfield would win the gold medal in the triathlon. When he did, journalists had to scramble to make it seem to readers and viewers as if they knew him.

 Luckily for them Whitfield turned out to be a garrulous, engaging patriot with an interesting story to tell. It was a Godsend for hacks fed up with having little more to dissect than Eric Lamaze's humiliation and the steady elimination of Canadian medal hopefuls.

 I feel as if I am trapped in a time warp in Australia. Canada has not fared so poorly at a Summer Olympics since it became the first host nation to fail to win a gold medal back at the first Games I attended - in Montreal in 1976.

 I followed Canada's premier amateur athletes around the world between 1974 and 1984. It was a grand job not only because of it got me to more than 80 countries and more than 100 world championships, but because I could measure the improvement of many of Canada's teams every year.

LITTLE IMPROVEMENT

 Now, four Olympic cycles after I left this dynamic sub-culture, I have discovered that with a few notable exceptions such as the men's basketball and field hockey teams, which both have become better under excellent coaches, and rowing, which remains fairly solid, Canada has stopped improving. In fact, it has regressed in many key events such as swimming, track and field and gymnastics as well as in half a dozen team sports including women's field hockey and basketball.

 Canada's feeble results are not the fault of the hundreds of men and women wearing the Maple Leaf in Sydney. Nor is the federal government to blame, although every four summers it is everyone's favourite whipping boy when our athletes' fail to bring home nearly enough medals for a country of Canada's size, wealth and ego.

 Canada's Olympians here tend to be serious, hard-working and proud. The athletes and their coaches do the best they can with what they are given to work with.

 The federal government treats our Olympians and future Olympians in exactly the way the people of Canada want them to be treated. Which is to say, Ottawa mostly ignores them.

 As was demonstrated again at last Friday's opening ceremonies, the Canadian Olympic Association has the means to send one of the biggest teams to the Olympics, so it does so even though, at a guess, fewer than one-tenth of the Canadians that have been flown here have a chance for a medal.

 Olympic sport has no natural constituency in Canada. Outside the Olympic Games, few Canadians are much interested in sport beyond what almost everyone else calls ice hockey and the major league Pablum served up by American and Canadian television networks.

 For all the many athletes it brings to the Olympics, Canada has never been able to fight at or above its own weight class at the Games. The current medal table in Sydney has Australia and Holland, as well as 20 other countries ahead of the country which our federal government likes to tell us is ranked first in the world by the United Nations.

MOMENTUM LOST

 It should not have turned out this way. Thanks to Sport Canada and thinkers such as Lloyd Percival, Canada was the first western country to get serious about the business of Olympic sport. But the momentum and knowledge gained coming out of Montreal was already lost by the early 1980s as Canada found other things on which to spend public money.

 Meanwhile, Australia, which grabbed and tinkered with the Canadian blueprint for success in Olympic sports, saw its medal totals rocket despite a population base that is not much more than half that of Canada's. Australia has achieved a kind of East German success - not through drugs or the support of the home crowd, although the fans have helped.

 Australia is having a glorious run at these Olympics with 22 medals to Canada's two. Australia has managed this because its people have demanded excellence in sport as a national priority.

 Canadians may be irked that things are once again turning out badly for us at the Olympics, but Canada has never set the bar very high.