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Canada’s performance at the London Olympic Games was solid and extremely close to what had been predicted with the nation finishing 13th in total medals won (18). Our athletes, coaches and officials took a single-minded approach to preparing and training to go head-to-head with the world’s best.
It is important to view our results with the knowledge that Canada pursues a dual-track Olympic philosophy, seeking to make a credible effort in both summer and winter Games. Many nations choose to put all of their eggs in the summer basket. Hence, in the summer Games, Canada faces an ever increasing number of entrants determined to stake their claim to podium supremacy. They do this because the Olympic Games are not just a festival of sport for the world’s youth, but also a platform for the projection of national power and credibility. Four years ago, for instance, the Beijing Games clearly showcased the coming of age of China and its emergence in the global industrial economy.
The practice of sport internationally has become more professionalized than ever with a huge emphasis on early introduction, talent identification, intensive technical instruction, travel to secure competitive opportunities, appropriate diet, and techniques to foster mental discipline and toughness. To produce winners, however, as London Olympic Games organizing chief Sebastian Coe pointed out, you also require “world class governing bodies … world class coaching … an extraordinary supply of talent prepared to work harder than anybody else and fourthly, of course, high and predictable levels of funding.” He might also have mentioned the role of national culture in prioritizing certain sports in particular countries; in other words the attachment that some countries innately have for particular sports and the determination that, in turn, results to medal in those sports (hockey in Canada, swimming in Australia, track in Jamaica).
However, given the constraints of space, let’s focus on the last two of his ingredients.
Building from the base
In Canada, we rely on professionals and volunteers who work in our schools, local clubs, community recreation centres and parks to cultivate the physical literacy (i.e. the building blocks of jumping, running, catching and throwing) and sporting aptitude of our children and youth. Our provincial sport organizations also play a part in creating the conditions to foster sport participation and competence. We must also not neglect the pivotal role of parents who, as a function of their resources, underwrite the athletic pursuits of their offspring.
If the acquisition of fundamental physical literacy skills and introduction to sport in the early years is the precursor for later Olympic achievement, it is clear that Canada (or, for that matter, Britain) does not do this particularly well. For 20 years now, our public schools have been urged by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and others, above all else, to service the functional needs of the global economy, namely numerical proficiency, English literacy and technological know-how. The result that physical education has often been the victim.
Forty-three per cent of schools in Canada are not meeting their provincial recommendations for instructional time in physical education and, where it is taught, it is often by generalists rather than specialists. We know that kids should be spending at least 60 minutes a day doing moderate to vigorous physical activity. However, only 28 per cent of 10 to 16 year old boys and 17 per cent of 10 to 16 year old girls meet the recommended Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. Canadian youth are spending six hours a day in front of television, video games and computer screens, while participation in school sport declines at the transition to high school, and continues to decline throughout high school. Incidentally, the difference in physical activity rates between genders is striking and troubling. The United Kingdom numbers for comparable age groups of schoolchildren are even worse.
The pipeline of potential high performance athletes is simply not there in sufficient numbers as declining sport participation rates confirm. Compounding the problem is the lack of genuine multi-sport facilities at the community level where young athletes can experience several different sports under the watchful eyes of knowledgeable facility coaches; costly entrance barriers to accessing certain facilities (think indoor tennis court time); and the fact that community sport organizations remain ineligible for charitable tax status and cling by a thread, and the goodwill of volunteers, to viability.
Money matters at the top
As Coe and others have noted there is an extremely close correlation between international sport bragging rights at the elite, high-performance level and the allocation of funding. It by no means explains everything, as the base of the sport participation pyramid described above is arguably of equal importance, but it is clear that targeted funding directed to promising medal hopefuls makes a difference.
Great Britain’s performance in London — 29 gold medals — is explained by more than just home-field advantage. After being awarded the Games in 2005, Team GB was determined it would get its share of the honours in the same way we were in Vancouver. They had three sources: the Exchequer, the National Lottery and a source of private (corporate) funds known as Team 2012. Over the London Cycle (2009-2013), this sum totalled £313 million or $486 million Canadian.
In some ways, the U.K. comparison is interesting but less instructive as their population, at 62 million, is just under twice ours (34 million). What if we take Australia (population 22 million)? Australia obtained a total of 35 medals. The Australian Sports Commission provided $349 million (Canadian) over the past four years to fund the Australian team’s participation in the London Olympics. The comparable figures for Canada show that our high-performance sport agency, Own the Podium, received $117 million Canadian for the London quadrennial (2009-2013) cycle to support summer sports. This funding came from Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
Evidently, there is an arms race in international high performance sport funding and Canada is not keeping pace. Viewed in this light, the results obtained by our athletes in London are highly respectable indeed. In a larger sense though, investments in sport and physical activity pay dividends beyond the medal table. They improve the well being of our population, reduce workplace absenteeism, diminish the incidence of chronic disease, and enhance the academic performance of our young people and the economic productivity of our workforce.
The occasion of the just-finished Olympics is an opportunity for us to reflect on just what the role of sport is or should be in Canadian society. Perhaps we should ask, as J.D. Miller of Olympic funding group B2ten does, what absolute level of medal success might we realistically aspire to in view of broader sport participation rates, population size, national culture, and available investment? This is surely a debate worth having.
Chris Jones is the senior leader of the Sport Matters Group.