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Saturday, September 23, 2000

Athletes want better funding

 PENRITH LAKES, Australia -- Lesley Thompson went out and got her wedding dress the other day and is going to be a bride before too long.

 The coxswain and the rest of Canada's women's heavyweight eight rowing crew will probably all be happy to be bridesmaids on Sunday.

 Replicating the silver medal finish of the women's eight from four years ago would be a huge accomplishment for the women who now are Canada's last chance to salvage some pride and glory for Canada's once great rowing armada.

 Canada's rowers, who won six of Canada's 22 medals in Atlanta in '96 and five of the 18 won by Canadians in 1992 in Barcelona, are riding a big skunk going into Sunday, part of the disappointing first week of these Games for Canada.

 Saturday was another disappointing day for a couple of Canada's former world champions as Derek Porter, of Victoria, B.C., finished fourth in the men's single sculls and Winnipeg's Emma Robinson and Theresa Luke of 100 Mile House, B.C., finished fourth in the women's coxless pair.

 Porter, fighting back tears, launched into an indictment of Canada's treatment of amateur athletes when asked what went wrong for the rowers here.

 He pointed to the disparity between what Canada and a country like Australia, with a smaller population, spends to support amateur athletes. The Aussies have poured about $280 million into their Olympic programs compared to about $60 million for Canada.

 The results are there with Australia fighting for the overall lead in the medal standings.

 "We've done well despite the system," said Porter.

 "(The government) says why bother? They're doing well. Why spend? It's catching up to us. There's not enough money train at the level we have to.

 "We've been resting on our laurels for the last eight years. Things have changed. We've got to get more focused on winning than qualifying."

 The results here for the rowers are going to force some hard philsophical questions to be asked. Where do we go from here?

 Among the people taking in Saturday's races was Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, decked out in Canada's colours, whose portfolio includes amateur sport. Will seeing the effects of cutbacks to amateur sport spending in the early '90s spur her to action?

 Will the Canadian taxpayers, who are grumbling now about our meagre medal count to date, be willing to see some of Ottawa's multi-billion dollar surplus channeled into our Olympic programs?

 "It's like in anything. If you put money in, you will have a payback. That's just the way it works," said women's rowing head coach Al Morrow.

 "One thing I can say is we had big cutbacks in 1988-90 and now they're coming back to haunt you. It's takes about 10 years to show because that's how long it takes for the athletes to develop. The financial thing has to be addressed."

 Canada's elite carded athletes recently had their monthly stipend boosted from about $800 to $1,100 which is nothing but a good thing.

 Next up is an examination of coaching in Canada.

 Without money, Canada's Olympic programs can't attract top coaches. Morrow, who could jump to another country for more monty in a heartbeat, will be part of a task force looking into coaching next month in Montreal.

 In the meantime, the rowing program, he said, might have to have a change in philosophy. Barring any new funding, the focus of the program might have to be narrowed.

 "Maybe we'll have to have a program that stresses high performance with a few individuals. It doesn't take that much money to do that," he said.

 "Something needs to be done," said Porter. "I'm not the only one who had a disappointing performance.

 There are other sports as well. People are disappointed in Canada as well. It's a mess that has to be looked at."