The Athens Olympics – A Tale of An Obsession with $hiny Medals

Friday, August 27, 2004


Written by Kyle Lambert

Apparently Canada’s new national sport is swimming. At least, that would appear to be the case given the massive uproar following the performance of Canadian swimmers at the Olympic Games in Athens. After failing to grab a medal, something none were predicted to do by the way, media types and fair-weather sports fans across the country starting bellowing about everything from the lack of federal funding for certain sports to the nation’s fixation on hockey. What caught my attention in the whole Olympic media circus were comments such as this: “If we spent even a fraction of what we wasted on the gun registry on our athletes the medals would be pouring in”. Great! I would certainly stop losing sleep at night knowing that Canadian swimmers were finishing 3rd instead of 5th in races held every four years.

I love sports as much as the next guy and as much as I’d love to avoid it, I have the same incomprehensible infatuation with professional hockey as many across Canada. However, I draw the line when it comes to diverting large amounts of federal money to help marginally-popular sports place one or two spots higher at the Olympics. Never mind the fact that people care about the Olympic Games only because of the massive amounts of corporate hype surrounding them. Twenty-four hour coverage means a whole lot of commercial time for big budget companies looking for an easy image boost and nothing says “buy our product” like “we care about the little-guy athlete”. Yet, for the other three years and fifty weeks of a four-year span, nobody really cares about swimmers and rowers. Sure, it’s nice to see them do well, but with limited amounts of money to give to amateur sports, there’s only so much that can be done.

Canada is often compared with the Aussies who have a similar population base but seem to bring in many more medals than Canadians. Keep in mind, however, that with so many Canadians playing a team sport like hockey, there aren’t too many top level athletes left to work on individual sports which have better chances at grabbing more medals such as swimming. So while Canada is a virtual lock for a medal in hockey, the Aussies can put 25 swimmers in the pool and come away with a dozen medals despite using the same number of athletes.

All of the fallacious thinking which surrounds the demand for greater sports funding rarely amounts to much. There is the reasonable argument that greater emphasis on sports can reduce healthcare costs, yet even it suffers greatly when placed under the microscope. First, healthcare funds are disproportionately used by older members of the population, hardly those who benefit from increased funding for our national swim team. Second, the funding demanded by Johnny-come-lately critics is that for elite athlete programs, not for grassroots programs which develop athletes at a young age. The demand is not for more swimmers and greater participation among Canada’s youth, it is for slightly better results from the same numbers of elite athletes so that we can supposedly revel in seeing a shiny medallion around someone’s neck as opposed to that person finishing one or two spots below the medals.

What drives the desire for medals? The same thing which drives our focus on the games, corporate sponsorship. Medals are shiny and nice and they mean that athletes get to pose on podiums. Basically, medals mean excellent photo-ops for use in ads for telephones and running shoes. Nike is unlikely to invest greatly in an athlete that expects to finish fourth because that athlete doesn’t get to stand on the podium and pose with a shiny thing around his or her neck. If you want an example, look at Canada’s golden boy diver Alexandre Despatie. He is loaded with corporate sponsors because he is seen as a lock for a medal. However, two other Canadian divers (in the synchronized pairs event) have already won a surprise bronze in Athens but were virtual unknowns before the games – they were ranked fourth heading into the event. The difference between fame and fortune and being an unknown is a whopping one or two places in the final standings.

I suppose the funding question really has become one of values. It appears that Canadians need to decide whether we value overall achievement in a number of sports or whether we’d prefer to focus on a small number of Olympic events and win a few more shiny medals. But in making that decision do keep in mind one thing: If we focus on just a few sports in efforts to win medals, which one do you think most Canadians are going to pick? I’ll see you at the rink.

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