Oh Canada! :(

The 2008 Summer Olympics are underway in China and besides the news of Michael Phelps, that of Canada being shut out of the medal count is growing. Six days into the games, Canada has yet to mount the podium in Beijing and shares this distinction with countries such as Somalia, Panama, and Iceland while countries such as Uzbekistan, Armenia and Togo are besting us at the games. To put it in a way that’s becoming popular to say, even Phelps has more medals than Canada.

So, what’s the problem here? Charles Adler has rejected three theories: Canada is cold, the government doesn’t care and we’re modest.

One of Stephen Harper’s five priorities during the 2006 election was restoring Canada’s image on the world stage. (UPDATE: not a Harper 5, but still emphasized by the CPC campaign) The more cynical realists would argue that the Olympics is merely a two-week love-in once every two years and that the games barely qualify for what Harper was referencing. Yet Canadians are hurting as they watch the games and we feel that our athletes should be doing better at this international showcase of athletic talent. A check of the COC media guide reveals that $20,000 is awarded per medal (even bronze) to Canadian athletes via the Athlete Excellence Fund. This is the first Olympics where athletes have been given bonuses from the Canadian Olympic Committee for winning medals.

Perhaps a larger question here is whether or not it is the role of government to incent our athletes to perform. Does this professionalize amateur sport by diluting the spirit of competition with monetary incentive? In Canada, companies such as VISA and Rona have provided sponsorships and salary assistance to athletes. Both companies are official sponsors to the Olympic games. If the private sector can bare $8.7 million a year for Sydney Crosby’s salary, can it bare $8.7 million in aggregate for the entire Olympic team? For the 330-plus team in Beijing, this amounts to about $26,000 per athlete.

Does this therefore reflect our real and market-based attitudes towards the Olympics or does the funding equation need to be reconfigured? If Canadian athletes are underfunded and if we assume that this translates directly into their performance, would Canadians cheer and reward a company that offered $100,000 per gold or provided grants to Canadian athletes? The problem, however, could lie in the management of sponsorship rights to the games. If companies want to advertise for the games, should a larger proportion of their money go towards the athletes?

So where does the problem lie? Like all Canadians, I’d love to see Canada take home some more gold. Canadian athletes are representing us to the world and they deserve our support. How can we give it to them?