Is the track to Olympic gold medals paved with hard cash?

Now that the Sydney Games are over, Canada mourns its unexpectedly low medal counts.

For Canada, this Summer Games has been anything but an Indian summer: A poor harvest of three gold, three silver, eight bronze medals.

And for the the past two weeks, as the occasional medal trickled in, the Canadian media has been trying to capture the essence of the nation's dismal athletic prowess: Maple Grief. Woe Canada. No Fun and Games.

But beyond the self-flagellation over unfulfilled medal hopes, Canada, like many nations from South Africa to Sri Lanka, is debating a simple economic inquiry: Can hard cash buy gold?

This debate of what the haves and have-nots can accomplish in the Olympic arena gained further credence at the Sydney Games, which concluded Sunday. Much of the gold rush Down Under was mined by the nations with the highest investments in sporting activities.

Recent studies have proposed that the rate of investment is directly reflected in how a nation performs in the global arena of sports. A study by Wellesley College in Massachusetts suggested in advance that "the victors in Sydney may be divided from the rest by nothing more muscular than the economy in which they live."

In fact, seven of the top 10 medal winners in Sydney were industrialized nations with deep pockets. The three exceptions - Russia, China, and Cuba - have a comprehensive system of talent identification, beginning in preschool, plus fairly decent funding, all aimed toward gaining international recognition.

In Canada, the soul-searching started midway through the Games as it became apparent the country would not reap a golden harvest. After a total haul of 22 medals at the Atlanta Games in 1996, Canada finished with 14 in Sydney, far less than the pre-Olympic predictions of 36 medals.

The need for additional funding has not been lost on the athletes themselves. "If the government put some money into sport it might give us more confidence that they think we are worthwhile," Canadian swimmer Marianne Limpert recently told reporters.

Adds her teammate Joanne Malar: "People expect gold medals from us ... but they have to put the money into it to get those Olympic medalists."

Even though Australia has only 18 million citizens, far fewer than Canada's 31 million population, it reaped a rich haul of 58 medals, thanks to a $280 million budget, compared with Canada's $62 million.

In the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, Australia suffered a shock to its national psyche after a humiliating performance. This prompted a rush to invest more money in sports. And the dividends were clear in Sydney.

A debate on additional funding is not radically out of line for a developed nation like Canada, or Great Britain. An attendant national pride almost always accompanies Olympic prowess.

Hence, in the traditional post-Olympic hand-wringing that many countries engage in the call has been to invest in future glory.

"The Olympics are part of our social fabric," says Bill McFarlane president of Swimming Canada. "Sports and our involvement are terribly important to our self-worth as a country and to the health and well-being of individuals."

Mr. McFarlane and others point out that additional funding for Olympic events is even more critical because corporate sponsorship, the bastion of sports funding, is preoccupied with professional sports.

Meanwhile, Canadian Olympic Association vice-president Michael Chambers said it's unrealistic to suggest Canada shouldn't make every effort to invest in Olympic success when it's within the country's means.

It's a goal that's both healthy for Canadians' psyche and physical fitness, he said. But at the same time, Canadians and other countries shouldn't flex their Olympic fiscal muscle and forget less fortunate nations, he added.

"There's not any realistic means of completely leveling the playing field," said Mr. Chambers. "It would be impossible to distribute funds equally so, for instance, Costa Rica is competitive with Germany."

Canada's new sports minister Denis Coderre recently said that in the end Canadians must decide whether Olympic participation is "an investment or an expense?"

"That's what people have to ask themselves," he said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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