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Sunday, September 17, 2000

A triathlon victory for the bureaucrats

  SYDNEY -- You barely feed your kids. They exist on Alpha-Getti and Mountain Dew.

 When the mood strikes, you toss them a buck or two. If they want to go anywhere, they have to dig into their own pockets.

 If they don't perform to the level of those with considerably more means, you cut off the last bit of your paltry help.

 And if, by the greatest of miracles, they manage to achieve, you wrap your arm around them and remind them how they couldn't have done it without you. We did that again last night with triathlon gold medallist Simon Whitfield of Kingston.

 You are a Canadian taxpayer. Your poor and pitiful kids are here in Sydney.

 Mark yesterday down. It was the day the bureaucrats and politicos brought about, just as surely as if they had worn singlets and swim suits. Whitfield won but aside from his victory, we did the full hoover.

 Our women's basketball team lost 74-46 to Australia. Hamilton swimmer Joanne Malar finished a devastating seventh in the women's 400-metre individual medley. Thanks to a couple of crashes, our top Canadian in the women's triathlon was Isabelle Turcotte-Baird of Quebec City. She was 31st.

 Montreal gymnast Sasha Jeltkov couldn't advance from the preliminaries and Winnipeg cyclist Tanya Dubnicoff, also a medal contender, finished eighth.

 Aside from Whitfield, the highlights of the day were a 2-2 tie with Pakistan in men's field hockey and a 7-7 draw with Russia in women's water polo. Give us a goalie and we're fine.

 Don't blame the kids, they are doing their best. Don't blame some defect in our national psychology. Don't blame luck -- one athlete's bad break can be minimized with a countryman's good fortune.

 Blame ourselves. We let these kids down.

 Canada's 15,000,000 taxpayers provide the lowest athletic subsidy among the G-7 nations. Solid funding in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s brought good performances in Atlanta and Nagano. But the past five years have brought heavy cuts. Sydney is where the bills come due.

 In Australia, we should expect roughly half the 22 medals Canada won at the 1996 Games. In this desolate news we should find no surprise.

 Athletics Canada head John Thresher last year pointed to the funding question in forecasting storm clouds at Sydney.

 "It could very well be a wakeup call," he said. "Canada will be asking what happened."

 The answer is simple. The AlphaGetti and Mountain Dew were all rower Marnie McBean could afford before a back injury forced her from these games. Winnipeg cyclist Clara Hughes has been so broke she made a buck pedaling a stationary bike at trade shows to demonstrate oxygen-measurement devices.

 Middle-distance runner Kathy Butler paid $1,000 of her $1,500 airfare to Ireland and finished fourth at the 1999 world cross-country championships. A dual citizen, Butler grew so exasperated by the meagre financial support that she moved to Britain, where taxpayers will pick up as much as $40,000 of her expenses.

 Wrestler Daniel Igali, a native of Nigeria who now lives in Burnaby, B.C., must contend with much more than world-class opponents and a serious injury. He knows that if his tiny four-man wrestling team performs poorly, Ottawa's budget knife will hack away at the meagre program that helped produce him.

 Our system withdraws support just when the athletes need it most, in the wake of failure. We rely on athletes to scare up financial help from a corporate community that, like the rest of the country, only tunes in every four years.

 Amateur sports minister Denis Coderre said he would like more money, but argues that the annual stipend of $60 million is significant. Sport officials believe the actual amount is closer to $40 million, about half the total of a decade ago. The national payroll for amateur athletics -- from travel to development, coaches and organization nationwide -- is now about the same as that of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 We have a federal government with a budget surplus that could be over $100 billion in five years. Heaven knows there are plenty of places to put the money, what with with our healthcare, education and physical infrastructure all in decline. There is a growing call from the middle- and upper-classes for tax cuts. But guess how much extra it would take for us to be able to compete, really compete at the Olympics?

 An additional toonie for each taxpayer, about $30 million.

 Look, if we decide as a nation that the Olympics doesn't matter, fine. Discontinue the elite programs and pull for the Americans every couple of years.

 But if we want more of what Whitfield gave us last night, if we want to compete, we have to help the athletes, most of whom have taken up our colours at enormous personal cost.

 Let's find a few dollars to take our Olympians off the streets. We've pimped them long enough.