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Friday, September 22, 2000

Canada badly needs a new Games plan

SYDNEY -- The myth that Canada is a great sporting nation has exploded in Sydney.

Barring a stunning second week at the Olympics, Canada is set to have its worst Summer Games in decades.

And Canada's best has never been very good. The country has been on the outer margins at the Olympics since the Modern Games started in 1896.

Much is being made now by some Canadian athletes, coaches and journalists about how Australia, with 12 million fewer inhabitants, allegedly bought its marvellous string of successes at the Sydney Games by outspending Canada on elite sport by a factor of more than 4-1.

The figures are accurate enough, but if the purpose it to use them to ease the national psyche this is wishful thinking.

Canada outspent Australia on elite sport by a factor of at least 5-1 going into the Montreal Games in 1976 and yet we fared little better (or worse) there than the Aussies did. Canada was still spending more on elite sport eight years later in Los Angeles. But the extra money from a program which began life as Game Plan '76 bought Canada relatively few medals once the Soviet bloc boycott was factored in.

Big bucks and having the Games at home have obviously contributed to Australia's medal haul here. But what is central to Australia's success at the Sydney Games isn't money or the backing of the delirious Australian public. It is that sport really matters Down Under in a way it has not in Canada since before World War II.

The other evening I had a chat about sport in Australia with a thoughtful man who has taught high school here for 36 years. The teacher reckoned at least two-thirds of the kids he taught played sports competitively either on school teams or through sports clubs which figure prominently in every Australian community. Equally impressive, every student was tested at the beginning and the end of the school year to measure how much fitness and skill levels had increased.

Canadians might wish to compare the rich Australian sporting experience for youth with their own.

But Canada's failure in sport is not for lack of facilities. The country may not spend a lot of taxpayers' money on its national teams today but thanks to lotteries and porkbarrelling, Canada is blessed with more and flashier sports arenas, parks and pools than any country except the United States.

Cities such as Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton all have more, newer and better sports facilities than Australian cities of similar size such as Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. More than half the stadia that Toronto intends to use if it wins its bid for the 2008 Olympics already exist. Sydney had so few decent arenas that it had to build almost every venue from scratch for the 2000 Games.

Canada's lack of Olympic success has always been quickly followed by excuses about how the best part of its male gene pool is directed toward hockey at a very young age and most sport interest is directed toward American professional leagues. However, Australia has even more serious problems in this regard.

The national game on this sport-mad island continent is cricket. The next three most popular sports are Rugby Union and Rugby League and the homegrown variant of rugby known as Aussie Rules or footie.

Basketball is popular enough to support a professional league. So is soccer. Surfing is a national mania and Australia also arguably takes baseball more seriously than Canada does. Yet Australiia also manages to have one of the two best swimming teams in the world and produces Olympic stars in cycling, shooting and field hockey.

Ominously, this great sporting nation of sand, surf and sun has begun to take winter sport seriously, too. An Australian woman won the slalom bronze medal at the last Winter Games in Nagano and has since become the world slalom champion.

What's next, ice hockey?

Canada's notion that it still is a great winter sporting nation may be in jeopardy, too.