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Sunday, July 23, 2000

Top athletes our best ambassadors

 It would be frivolous to suggest that Canada's Olympic team will burn up the track, so to speak, at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.

 However, officials of the Canadian Olympic Association are quietly hoping that the team will return home with more than the modest 22 medals it captured at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

 "Our biggest challenge will be to eclipse the total of 22 medals from Atlanta," said Mark Lowry, executive director of sports and programs in the COA's Ottawa office. "We will again depend mostly on our swimmers and rowers. We're confident that we have a strong team and we'll have to prove it in Sydney.

 "Right now, we're riding on the crest of successful teams of the early 1990s, but in the mid-1990s we began to decline in a number of sports. The fact is that the focus on high performance athletes was mostly evident in the 1980s."

 The friendlly executive, who was associated with CIAU and rowing before he took up his present role, is hoping that Canadian government people, in particular sports minister Denis Codere, will encourage a better sports system in Canada than the one operating at present.

 Other countries have realized long ago that the best ambassadors for any country are the high performance athletes with their triumphs in world championships and Olympic Games.

 I remember speaking to a German sports minister a few years ago and asking him whether he's not being lambasted in the media for spending so much money on amateur sports. The minister, whose name now escapes me, looked at me and said:

 "Herr Gross, let me explain one thing to you -- for every mark we spend on sports and physical fitness, we save two marks in hospital expenses."

 Codere seems to go in the same direction. He committed $20 million, which is a reflection on the $ 50-60 million the federal government is spending to focus on high performance athletes. It is also something that will go a long way in improving Canada's image in the international arena.

 "At present, we're the fifth-best nation in the winter and 11th in the Summer Games," Lowry said. "Our planning calls for a move from 11th to fourth position in the Summer Games by 2008 and from fifth to first by 2010 (in the Winter Games). The development of high performance athletes has galvanized the interest of athletes."

 Lowry is not bypassing the 2000 Sydney Games. He's particularly elated with the success of our rowers and swimmers. The rowers have excelled in the recent world championships at Luzern, Switzerland, and will be able to add the men's and women's heavy eight doubles to the Olympic roster with a good chance for success.

 "Our rowers have established high standards for qualifying for the Olympics," explained Lowry. "Ever since the early 1990s the standard requirement was a no-worse than sixth-place finish in world competition. The rowers' selection criteria are tougher than the COA's. The swimmers, who'll be sending a team of 40 to Sydney follow in their footsteps."

 From an observer's point of view, let me place a bet that we'll surpass the Atlanta medal count by at least a half dozen medals of various colours.

 George Gross's column appears each Sunday.