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Saturday, September 30, 2000

Canada's athletic $$ spread too thin?

 SYDNEY -- I know of no one so interested, so enthusiastic, so well informed, so sensible and so articulate about Canada and the Olympics as Abigail Hoffman.

 I caught up to Hoffman the other night at Stadium Australia as the gold medallists, Marion Jones of the United States and Cathy Freeman of Australia, were running 200-metre heats and men did the pole vault and long jump on the far side of the field.

 Our meeting came after the former Olympic middle distance runner and Sport Canada boss had spent 14 hours racing back and forth between field hockey, synchronized diving and athletics.

 "We should try to avoid the national catharsis that follows our Olympic performances," was Hoffman's sober take on Canada's placing in the high 20s in Sydney.

 "The medal talk for Canada going into these Games was extremely optimistic. People were including everyone with an outside chance as medallists. What you have to do to arrive at a realistic figure is look at half of these people as medal prospects.

 "Canada should be in the top dozen. That would not be unreasonable. I think the people of Canada want Canadians to do well, but we are still dealing with the aftershocks of Seoul and Ben Johnson.

 "Since that happened Canada has made a huge investment in anti-doping, sport for the disabled, for women and for aboriginal peoples. I think these things were very important. But they took energy and countries such as Canada can't put their energies everywhere.

 "Whether it was right or wrong, once Canada decided to do this it was hard to remain competitive with the rest of the world in high performance sport. If all the money spent on these new initiatives had been put into the next wave of elite athletes we might have had some different results here."

 Abby Hoffman is 53 and has a dazzling shock of silver hair. No longer involved in the shrinking federal sport bureaucracy, she works as a senior policy adviser for Health Canada in Ottawa. She was in Sydney as a member of the world track body's powerful executive council.

 As a child, Hoffman fought for the right to play hockey with boys. She has just won her most recent battle to get women into the Olympics in the 5,000 metres, pole vault and triple jump. The women's vault has made a remarkable debut in Sydney thanks to pinup girl Tatiana Gregorieva, one of the Russians who followed the big sports dollars to Australia where she was also rewarded with a passport.

 "It is too simple to reduce it all to money, but money is an issue," Hoffman said. "I have no complaint about Canada's individual performances here, given the circumstances of this competition. But in the larger sense our system has had tough times in financing and focus in the 1990s and it shows. The rest of the world is moving forward. We've had to struggle to just maintain our performance.

 "One of the problems is that national coaches are trying to hold together teams without having intense domestic competition. That is why (women's field hockey's) Marina Van Der Merwe was so remarkable in the 1980s. Her team achieved good results despite weak domestic competition. Having good domestic competition is a real 'system' issue if we are to excel internationally."

 Some of what little success Canada has had in Sydney has come in new Olympic events such as triathlon, trampoline and synchronized diving. However, Canada's supremacy in new sports usually peters out quickly.

 "We tend to be in there on the ground floor because we have an entering level of competence," Hoffman said, citing strong Canadian results in freestyle skiing and women's biathlon at the Winter Games as other examples of this phenomenon.

 "It's worth noting that those from Canada who succeed in these new sports are often from outside our established sport system. As these sports begin to be taken more seriously other countries establish systemic approaches to them. This breeds a higher level of competence and suddenly we're behind."

 Another Canadian weakness is that its sports federations frequently change strategies.

 "Sometimes we concentrate on junior teams, sometimes on senior teams. Our focus is scattered. Few sports develop programs covering the whole spectrum. Many countries now take a serious, focused approach from the sandlot to the podium. They invest at every level," Hoffman said.

 "Canada must decide if it wants to make the effort. I'm not sure whether the mentality is there for Canada to go out on this limb."