Give Us the Gold in Whining

Canada's athletes inspire. Too bad our politicians and media lack mettle.

By Shannon Rupp 22 Aug 2008 |

Tyee contributing editor Shannon Rupp is a regular columnist. Read her previous articles here.

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Simon Whitfield's inspiring return nabs silver.

Sport builds character? Explain the Olympic whine.

In fact, just be grateful there are no medals for whining because Canada would come up gold.

That crossed my mind as I listened to couch potatoes bemoaning the Olympic medal "drought" during the first week of the games. Don't get me started on the irony of their lament being led by the lard-butted press corps.

Even my esteemed colleague Steve Burgess got off a few good zingers, while a guest host on CBC's Sounds Like Canada. But his jokes about the shame he felt when Togo took a medal while Canada didn't only reminded me that despite his long, lanky frame, Steve's favourite sport is hoisting coffee cups.

Prime Minister Harper got into the act, registering his disappointment. Ironic, given his reluctance to put his money where his mouth is. Usually governments like Harper's (with oppressive, totalitarian social values) compensate by pumping money into athletics, if only to prove the superiority of their kind. Just consider the Nazis. Or the Soviets. Or China, while we're on the subject. If Harper insists on that anti-abortion stance, the least he can do is put more money into sports coffers.

Gordon Campbell was also disappointed by the lack of honours, but at least he recognized that China's medal collecting was connected to its well-funded programs.

"These results are going to move their country forward, and we have to learn how better to provide support for our athletes," the premier told The Globe and Mail. "We have to have a good, hard look at how we fund our athletes, our coaches, our nutritionists.... Let's get on with doing something. It's critical."

As critical as a 29 per cent raise for MLAs?

Alas, he's a day late and a dollar short -- did I hear anything beyond a promise to "take a hard look?" It takes roughly a generation to build a program that will reliably put athletes on the international podium. If we start now, we should see results by 2026.

Throw another dollar on the barbells

Australia, by contrast, did something about its lack of medals in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The country has a population of about 21 million, and Canadian Press reports that they spend about $250 million on sport. They'll sweeten that pot by another $200 million, in order to remain competitive in the summer sports at which Australians excel. Their team of 433 members collected 20 medals in the first week, and is expected to double that by the end of the games. By contrast, Canada spent about $166 million to fund both winter and summer sports over 2008-'09, and sent a team of 331 to Beijing.

With limited funding, Canada simply doesn't field competitors in all disciplines. The first week of Beijing had only three events in which Canada had serious contenders. Limited cash, stretched thin, and supplemented by the athletes' own pockets is Canada's proud Olympic tradition.

Yet the one thing I didn't hear amidst the bitching about gilt-free athletes was taxpayers complaining about the lack of athletic support. Apparently, too few of our citizens are jocks, and they don't get that athletes are not obligated, financially or otherwise, to sacrifice themselves to cover the boob tubers in glory.

Much bang for the buck

As it is, Canadians got to do plenty of flag-waving at bargain-basement prices. By day 12, there were 13 medals (more than in Athens), yet there were still mutterings about the athletes' "failures."

Seems to me they're punching well above their funding. Fencer Sherraine Schalm trains with her competition in Europe because Canada can't fund the calibre of coach she needs, yet she's fifth in the world and was the 2006 world-cup winner. She was knocked out in her first bout by a lower-ranked opponent -- yes, this happens in combat sports -- and suddenly people who don't know a foil from an epee are demanding to know why she isn't making the hometown tightwads feel good about themselves?

Incidentally, was I the only one who wanted to see her use her sword on CBC's Scott Russell, who demanded she explain why she made an early exit from the Olympics "once again"? TV reporters aren't known for their smarts, but I'd say that bit of hair-and-teeth is lucky he still has his.

Knowing the state is stingy when it comes to funding culture, I was astounded at how often Canadians had top-10 showings. Shot-putter Dylan Armstrong, for example, threw a personal best of 2.04 metres, beat the Canadian record, and found himself out of the medals by less than a centimetre. His disappointment must have been overwhelming, but I felt nothing but admiration for the guy who did better than his best.

Grunt and bear it

I can only imagine the whingefest that will accompany Vancouver's Olympics in 2010 if Canadians don't hear the national anthem (to which most of us don't know the words) played often enough. And they won't. Despite repeated studies about the economic value of both sport and the arts, Canadians have always been reluctant to fund anyone else's "fun."

Speaking of fun: anyone up for sculling before dawn in January on the West Coast? Don't let Victoria's balmy temperatures fool you -- the damp has a way of burrowing into your joints that makes it a much nastier cold than a -10 day in central Canada.

How about doing laps for stamina before anyone else is out of bed: in the pool, on the rink or on a track? A huge amount of training is tedium -- just relentless grunt work to build strength.

In any sport, you can expect to work 35 to 40 hours a week in a job that automatically comes with pain. Ever wonder why athletes (or dancers, for that matter) work until they snap ligaments and tear muscles? It's because aching is a normal part of training, so it isn't always easy to distinguish the good pain from the bad pain.

Most elite athletes toil with no glory and little chance of a payoff. Endorsements go to the glamour sports like swimming and sprinting. There are no million-dollar salaries in a national league for the power pixies who fly between uneven bars. As for javelin throwers, fencers and power lifters -- what were they thinking?

Obviously they're far less calculating than the reporters, politicians and lazy, healthcare-sucking citizens who insulted and demoralized them, while showing a stunning disregard for the facts. Amateur athletes labour at superhuman levels, at their own expense, while everyone else attached to the Olympics makes fat profits.

A modest proposal

As I write this, Canada has 15 medals and counting, but I've yet to hear a much-deserved apology to Team Canada and every other athlete in training for the next Olympics. Then again, talk's cheap too.

So I have a better idea.

Every reporter whose copy included the phrase "disappointing showing," every editor who ran it, and every politician in every government that concurred can do penance. They can spend a year living like athletes in training.

They may not be good at it, but there's nothing to stop them paddling at dawn, cycling, running, hitting the gym for at least five hours a day -- preferably with someone barking at them to work harder. They can fit it in around the job that earns their income, just the way athletes do.

Apparently, they're in desperate need of some of the character that sport has long been lauded for building. Really, it would be doing them a favour: while trimming their lardy butts, it might also sharpen their lardy brains.

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