By TIM WHITEHEAD -- CANOE Money Columnist
The nation is upset over its poor performance at the Sydney Olympics.
Both the number of golds and the medals total were well below
Fingers are pointed, excuses muttered. The Reuters news agency quotes a
swimming coach as complaining about the toughness of the nation's
"Some people go in their pants when they're on the starting blocks." And
one newspaper, in a bold headline, has equated the country to a 'limp
I refer, of course, to Germany. Listening to the German breastbeating
would be a worthwhile exercise for Canadians who are also disappointed
about their country's showing in Sydney.
The Germans expected that reunification in 1990 would lead to a
superpower. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, the country finished second
65 medals, 20 of them gold. In Sydney, however, the Germans could muster
only 57 medals (14 golds) and a fifth-place finish.
And so, while some Canadians argue our disappointment in Sydney means
that public funding for Olympic athletes should be increased to match
Australian effort, in Germany some are waxing nostalgic about the East
German sports program of yore. Just imagine lamenting anything about the
grim, gray state of East Germany (which used sports success as an
and you'll realize that sports fanatics sometimes lose sight of broader
This isn't to say that I wasn't cheering for Canadians to do better
at Sydney. I stayed up late, endured Brian Williams and even watched
diving as a devoted Canadian. I'm even enough of a Canuck to rank Simon
Whitfield's triathlon win as the highlight of the 2000 Games. It's just
that I'm just not about to tie myself up in knots over Canada's new
age' or demand that the federal government triple its Olympic funding of
$60 million or so.
First reason: there is a lot more randomness to the Olympic medal
than many believe. Carol Montgomery is undercut by an accident in the
triathlon. High jumper Mark Boswell gets rained upon. It's random luck
and it happens to all countries, Canada and Germany included. As well,
there is the luck of the draw in wrestling and boxing matches that can
see a Canadian eliminated in an early round by the eventual winner. Or
illness or injury can virtually eliminate a competitor like Donavan
or Bruny Surin. Or just fractions of a second which can keep a Marianne
Limpert or a Joanne Malar off the medals podium. Don't even mention the
capricious judging. And would it be churlish to suggest that other
athletes may not be as drug-free as Canada's?
The point is, if you ran the Olympics again tomorrow ? same people,
same events, same no drugs ? who's to say that the Olympic gods
suddenly be smiling on the Canadian team and we'd all be congratulating
ourselves for the sporting success of the nation?
Second reason: from an historical perspective, Canada's performance
in Sydney was not bad. Sure, our medals total is down from Barcelona
and Atlanta (1996), but it is way up from every previous Olympics
the 1984 Los Angeles Games which most of the Warsaw Pact countries
No one seems to remember the 1960 Olympics when Canada managed only one
medal, a silver in men's eights rowing.
Third reason: I find it difficult to justify more public money for
athletes. I'd much rather public money be spent on broader participation
in sports. This isn't to say that I don't favour Toronto's bid for the
2008 Olympics ? Los Angeles, Atlanta and Sydney have shown that the
can break even ? but I hope the facilities for the Games would increase
the opportunities for average Canadians to exercise and train.
But that still leaves the issue of funding Canada's athletic
Here are three suggestions:
1. Greater corporate sponsorship. Perhaps Canada's corporations could
adopt particular sports and commit to long-term financing. I don't mind
if the success of, say, our cycling team redounds to the greater
of, say, Telus. Leave support for community sports to the public
and let corporations finance some of our elite activities.
2. An Olympic lottery. The British cite the funding from lotteries as
one of the reasons for their improved performance at Sydney.
3. An income-tax check-off. I've proposed this idea before. At the
of the income-tax form, the government could list a number of Canadian
charities or programs (including the Olympic program) and let the
check off any to which he or she would like to donate $10. The money
be added to the tax owing or deducted from the rebate. The taxfiler
be given an immediate tax deduction for the charitable donation. And
the federal government could match the donation to some extent. It would
add a little hint of democracy to Canada's tax-and-spend system.
Tim Whitehead operates an economic consulting firm, Left Bank
Inc., near Paris, Ontario.