"Glory is fleeting but obscurity is forever." Napoleon Bonaparte
"Bronze is the new gold." James Duthie
On the surface, eighteen medals sounds pretty good. It's not a shut-out by any means, and it equals our second best output of non-boycott Summer Olympic medals. Our athletes did us proud and certainly, for the most part, did their best.
But, a closer examination reveals a mediocre truth. Our tally included just one gold medal. We should be proud of our gold medallist, trampoline athlete Rosie MacLennan. But the single gold is one of our worst achievements in recent Summer Olympic history. In Barcelona in 1992, we earned 7 gold. In Atlanta in 1996, we earned a total of 22 medals, of which 3 were gold, and 11 were silver. It seemed, in the 1990's, that we were on a crest of improvement heading into the new millenium. But, since then, we have tailed off dramatically.
There is an argument against keeping track of medal totals. The argument says that the experience of sending our young athletes to an event of such magnitude is reward in itself. The experience fosters a sense of world-wide comaraderie and is essential in expanding our young people's horizons and creating a world of peace and harmony. Allowing our youth to give their all against their fellow young people is worth the expense and effort to field a team. We should all unite behind the Olympic ideal and cheer on their efforts, no matter what the result.
This is a quaint and antiquated ideal. Certainly there is value in having people from around the world gathering in peace and honest athletic competition. We all live in hope that, somehow, the world will become a better place because of the Olympic effort.
But to characterize our purpose in sending a team of several hundred athletes to these games for only altruistic reasons is sheer balderdash. If we want to expose our youth to other cultures and other people in different countries, we have student and other youth exchanges for that purpose. If we merely want our youth to participate and try their best in sport, we have minor hockey, little league baseball, and recreational activities for that purpose.
The Olympics is meant to be one of the highest expressions of human endeavour. It is for the glory and wonder of accomplishment that we send athletes to compete in these games. It is for the sports elite of the world, not for our earnest, fresh-faced kids who compete in order to exchange flag pins and addresses with other kids. We send children to compete with athletic monsters, people who train and work hard to achieve miraculous and incredible results. It is a sports form of cannon fodder.
The modern Olympics are professional in every way, and there is no reason to bemoan some kind of loss of innocense. And, in the new consciousness of professional sports, indeed in any sphere of human endeavour at the highest level, there is only one standard of judgement: winning.
Canada needs to grow up about this change. Bronze is no longer good enough. Eighteen medals, which puts us on a level with nations such as Cuba, Hungary, Spain, and the Netherlands, is not good enough. And one gold medal simply means that we are better than nations such as Cyprus, Botswana and Belgium, but not as good as Kenya, Ethiopia and Iran. Surely, if we regard ourselves as a major nation in the world, we must agree that a better performance is needed.
Why should we care about this? Because nations and people want to be taken seriously and want to achieve greatness. There are many ways this can be accomplished: financial and economic wealth and influence, an honest and generous foreign policy, a tolerant and inclusive society, strong and fair laws, a potent and far-reaching military, diplomatic expertise, an innovative and extensive educational system .... all these things are measures of a great society. But surely athletic prowess and excellence has its place in this pantheon. A country's competitiveness, courage, will, innovation, and self-confidence are measured by athletic success.
What does our Olympic performance say about us? It says that we are not competitive, that we are satisfied with second or ( more to the point ) third best, and that we come well-equipped with excuses and tissues to wipe away our tears.
In 2003, my wife and I visited Australia. One of the stops on our travels was the national capital, Canberra. To be honest, Canberra is a rather dull and uninspired capital city, but it is also the home of the world famous and highly successful Australian Institute of Sport. The AIS was formed in 1976, when Australia failed to win a single gold medal at the Montreal Olympics. (If this sounds familiar, by the way, it's because Canada became the first host country to fail to win a gold. We did it again in 1988 at Calgary.) To the Aussies, 1976 was a national failure of will and they resolved to do something about it. They created the AIS to bring about needed reforms in the entire approach Australia took to sports. The AIS has since become a world leader in the recruitment and development of young athletes who have the potential of becoming elite in their sports. The AIS also pioneers research in sports science, psychology and medicine as support mechanisms to aid their athletes in their performance. And the AIS has placed great emphasis on developing coaches of world-class calibre The result of this is that Australia is far more successful in international athletics, not just in the Olympics, but in all sports. And, as a result, Australia, a nation of just 22 million people, is respected and listened to far beyond the scope of its population and location. Australia punches far above its weight.
The United States is also a perennial sports power, not because of a central national sports programme, but because of the power and success of its college and university programmes. The NCAA is legendary in its approach to developing athletes and demanding excellence in all sports endeavours. It is wildly popular with the general public. It churns out great athletes and coaches who become local and national and international legends. And it is largely privately funded, mostly by school alumni. It works.
Australia and the United States are nations which take sports seriously. Sports and fitness are part of their national cultures and constitute an expression of their national will. Other nations, such as Russia, China and South Korea, offer similar expressions of national will.
There is no equivalent of the AIS or the NCAA in Canada. Instead, we have the recent "Own the Podium" initiative, which is a vague collaboration of the private and public sectors to fund sports. It has had some success, particularly in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. But it can be argued that it was implimented as a stop-gap, out of necessity in order to avoid another fiasco of underachievement that we saw at Montreal and Calgary. Whether "Own the Podium" can be given credit for the performance in London, or can sustain winter success in Socchi and beyond is questionnable. The odds don't look good.
It is time for Canada to get serious about sports. It is time that all of us, private sector, government at all levels, and especially the population at large, get serious about OUR committment to sports. We need to create institutions like the AIS to develop not only world class athletes, but world class coaches, trainers, researchers and officials. We need to find more money to do this. We need to become more active ourselves: we are our own worst enemy because we follow only one sport religiously ( hockey), and then put our emphasis on other professional sports such as baseball, basketball, soccer, Canadian or American football and golf. After that, international sports are relegated to the back pages of the sports section, if they are covered at all. And amateur sport just doesn't exist. International and amateur sports must be placed front and centre on our collective radars. Otherwise, there will be no Usain Bolts emerge from Canada.
You don't need to be a sports fan to agree with this. Just do the following:
- insist on more government funding for sports and fitness: open your wallet
- insist on more media coverage of international and amateur sport and not just the NHL, NFL, CFL, NBA, MLB, MLS etc.
- get out to watch a swim meet, a track meet, gymnastics or volleyball in your community
- encourage all children to play sports, for fun at first, but then to improve as they age
- support organizers and officials in your community and DON'T ABUSE referees unless you can do a better job: if you can do better, BECOME AN OFFICIAL OR COACH
- get off the couch yourself and get fit.
We can grow as a nation, we can achieve our destiny, and we can feel better about ourselves and our future if we get more competitive and successful. The Olympics is a good place to start.