Sunday, November 23, 1997
A flurry of fed snow jobs
It never ceases to amaze Olympic sport watchers how fast politicians and bureaucrats surface soon after a member of the Canadian team wins a medal at a major Games -- especially when there are TV cameras or tape recorders rolling.
Usually happy speeches are made, pictures are taken and promises of a brighter tomorrow are announced at these events, and the athletes, the ones who do all the work, are eventually shoved into the background.
No doubt this scenario will materialize at the Nagano Olympics in February when the Canadian snowboard team takes to the hills of Kanbayashi Park.
The chances are good that a member of the Canadian team will win a medal in snowboarding, the first time the sport is recognized as an official Olympic event, and the chances are even better that some federal pencil-head will rush over to have his snapshot taken with the triumphant athlete.
As most Canadian team athletes are true sports on and off the field, there probably will be handshakes and smiles all around when medals are won. But if anybody on the snowboard team decides to forsake the chance for a grip-and-grin with a fed, more power to them.
The Canadian snowboard team -- a squad that could realistically win three medals in Nagano -- is an outfit that receives absolutely no financial help from the Canadian government, and that's too bad. Yet as sure as silk, Copps & Co. will weasel in for some browny points if these mountain gladiators land on the podium.
The same goes for bobsled. Chances are the powerful Canadian bobsled squad will also win a medal in Nagano. But, again, this is a team that has elevated itself to the head of the international standings on a fraction of the budget most other top teams enjoy.
"For sure, if (Copps) was to jump in and wanted to do the handshake thing, I'm sure some of our athletes would feel a little slighted," said Michael Wood, executive director of the Canadian Snowboard Federation. "These athletes are having to sleep on floors during the season and yet when the cameras are around, it will look as if we've been supported from Day 1."
Bobsled Canada chief Ben Morin has accomplished more on his own, in terms of putting together a viable operation, than some entire branches of the civil service. The bottom line is, if the feds refuse to fund, at least to some degree, genuine Olympic events such as snowboarding and ski jumping, then they shouldn't bother to send representatives to the Olympics or take credit for medals. Even top Olympic sports, alpine skiing and figure skating for example, get by these days largely on private funding. Which is fine, if the government didn't use our athletes as pawns in the never-ending pursuit of a photo op. But they do and they'll be there in spades in Nagano, bet the cat on it.
Consider ski jumping. There was a time, during the era of the Canadian wunderkinds Steve Collins and Horst Bulau in the 1980s, when the nordic daredevils from the land of the Maple Leaf were a leading attraction on the hills of Europe. Collins, an Ojibwa from a reservation near Thunder Bay, is still a legend in the sport.
Now, Ski Jumping Canada, another national sports federation that receives zero government support, doesn't even have the money to develop decent enough jumpers to send to the Games.
"If we're going to have competitive athletes, we need competitive facilities," SJC head Jim Bandola said. "If our facilities were up to scratch, we'd be there."
It's a vicious circle. The feds cut funding to Olympic sports if they don't meet a certain criteria, such as high-participation numbers and top world results. But without funding and trips to the Games, ski jumping and snowboarding will never gain the notoriety necessary to attract sponsors and kids to the hills.
Meanwhile, the feds are booking their flights for Nagano, no doubt business class.