SEARCH 2000 Games

Saturday, September 23, 2000

Too many sports, not enough money

 SYDNEY -- Canadians drooling over Australia's fabulous medal tally at the Summer Olympics here must wonder what difficult choices are required if Canada is to ever hope to produce such results.

 There are a lot of ways to calculate what it might take to bring Canada up to Australia's level. The greatest is the intangible which seems to work so much in Australia's favour. The country is truly sports mad.

 If it was simply a question of money, and considering that Canada has 60% more people than Australia, about $400 million a year more would be needed to match what Australia now spends to get Olympic athletes ready to compete. Put another way, about 4% of the current budget surplus would have to be spent annually for a decade or more to begin to even things up.

 If more federal cash isn't forthcoming, and it probably isn't given how Stockwell Day is pushing the Chretien government on tax cuts, another way to improve Canadian results would be to ruthlessly deprive of all funding a dozen or more sports which never produce internationally competitive athletes.

 The taxpayers' money saved could be handed over to those few sports with proven records, but which are unable to compete with the world's elite level because they cannot provide the level of coaching and sports medicine, a decent standard of living and the opportunities for training and competition that many other nations do.

 Sports to get the chop in Canada might include gymnastics, tennis, boxing, fencing, water polo, weightlifting, wrestling and most of the disciplines in track and field. Paring these sports would be a brutal business attended by much howling, moaning and backroom lobbying, but it is long overdue.

 Everbody's invited

 Canada always looks like a powerhouse at the Olympic Opening Ceremony because unlike many wealthy European nations, almost every Canadian who meets the minimum Olympic qualifying standard gets invited to the party. It would clearly make more financial sense and help potential winners to concentrate better if Canada was to only bring those athletes who had a good chance of winning medals.

 An inspiration for Canada in this regard might be South Africa. It would not allow its rather good men's field hockey team to come to Sydney, although it had qualified for the Olympics, because its national Olympic committee reckoned the team could not win a medal.

 A potential candidate for cuts would be Canada's swim team. It brought 39 kids to Australia yet only a handful of them were serious medal contenders. Some of the swimmers made the best case against their own inclusion in the team in interviews in which they gushed about how they had already achieved their goals by getting to the Olympics and that how they actually placed at them was a lesser consideration than simply getting there.

 Dropping some sports or limiting the participation of some sports at the Olympics so more attention could be concentrated on others who are nearly through to the medal podium, is something that has been kicked around for years by Ottawa and Canada's sport establishment. Ultimately, nothing much has ever been done because to do so would run counter to the perverse primordial need of many Canadians to treat everyone the same even if this results in a culture of mediocrity rather than a meritocracy.

 Whatever Canada does, it will be complicated by the fact that a lot more countries now take winning Olympic medals more seriously than four years ago in Atlanta or eight years ago in Barcelona. This is a reality in team sports such as baseball and basketball, where there have been many upsets already in Sydney, and in individual sports such as cycling and athletics where the potential winners are now spread across far more nations than before.

 The point was brought home most emphatically at the Olympic Superpool last week. Relative newcomers from Italy, the Netherlands, Romania and Sweden whupped some of the cocky Americans and Australian champions, while swimmers from emerging powers such as Japan, South Africa, Spain, China and even Croatia showed marked improvement.

 This is just one of many reasons why Canada's prospects for Olympic glory diminish with every Olympiad.