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Thursday, October 5, 2000
Out of the Medals

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 expectations. Fingers are pointed, excuses muttered. The Reuters news agency quotes a swimming coach as complaining about the toughness of the nation's competitors, "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 nation'.

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 sports superpower. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, the country finished second with 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 the 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 opiate) and you'll realize that sports fanatics sometimes lose sight of broader issues.

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 synchronized 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 'bronze 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 count than many believe. Carol Montgomery is undercut by an accident in the women's 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 Bailey 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 countries' 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 wouldn't 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 (1992) and Atlanta (1996), but it is way up from every previous Olympics (except the 1984 Los Angeles Games which most of the Warsaw Pact countries boycotted). 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 elite 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 Games 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 programs. 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 prestige of, say, Telus. Leave support for community sports to the public treasury, 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 bottom of the income-tax form, the government could list a number of Canadian charities or programs (including the Olympic program) and let the taxfiler check off any to which he or she would like to donate $10. The money could be added to the tax owing or deducted from the rebate. The taxfiler could be given an immediate tax deduction for the charitable donation. And perhaps 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 Economics Inc., near Paris, Ontario.

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