Canada’s Excellence at Sports – not!

For the last two weeks we have had to endure a wave of noise about Canadian athletes drive for excellence.   The usual clichés have been spouted about our country “punching above our weight”.   We have even had the unseemly sight of an executive for a PR company telling us that all this good feeling around the Olympics was the result of the Stephen Harper government.

The problem is that it is not true. It is not true that the Harper government is responsible for the Canadian team’s showing at the London Olympics and it is not true that Team Canada is doing better than can be reasonably expected at the Games.

The truth is our sports system is for the, most part, failing.   Since the Vancouver Olympics corporate sponsorship is declining.  There is little government money to pick up the slack.  And many of our sports officials (although there are some honourable exceptions) spend much of their energy on internecine federal-provincial battles.  Or in the words of the late, great sports journalist Randy Starkman ‘try[ing] to tell you a bushel full of manure is a pot of gold like some sports bureaucrats do.’ 

This slackness in our sporting system is helped by a general Canadian acceptance of mediocrity while sprouting clichés about ‘excellence’ at the same time.   Strong words?  Look at Australia.   They have 12 million people fewer than us, yet consistently they kick our (and lots of other countries) behinds all over the sporting map.  We celebrate our first medal (a bronze) for a Canadian team since 1936, the Aussies win regularly at team sports as wide ranging as water polo, field hockey, netball, basketball and rugby.  In individual sports, they are often strong and better competitors than Canadians. Worse they continue to be good at sports where we used to be good – like swimming or track and field. 

 If you need proof then take a look at the medals tables. We are far behind Australia in the medal table that most Canadians are given – the one that lists countries by total medals won. On that table we are 12th behind the Netherlands (population 17 million) and just ahead of Hungry (population 10 million).   But if you use the medal table that much of the rest of the world uses – the one that lists total gold medals won – we are even further behind the Aussies and other sporting giants like Kazakhstan and Belarus. And lets us not even discuss our performance in the medal table that lists medals won by per capita of a county’s population.  According to that table, we rank 32 places below the world leaders Grenada, Jamaica and New Zealand.

 Think these are just the words of a disgruntled spectator?  Try listening to Alex Baumann. He was our world record holder and twice a gold medal swimmer in the 1980s for the Canadian team. Then he moved to Australia – when he tried to move back to Canada to take up the challenge of producing true sporting excellence, the Canadian sports world rejected his approach. Finally, in 2007 they let him lead us to a superb showing in Vancouver.   Last year, he was allowed to move to New Zealand. Baumann’s take on lack of accountability?

The challenge is making sure you don’t adopt a consensus approach, that everybody’s happy.  In the end you take everybody’s input but you have to make a decision and sometimes that decision is unpopular. But that’s what leadership is, in my opinion. It’s kind of what the Australians used to say, that you need to have that mongrel in you. The intensity, the non-compromising attitude. The Australians say true athletes have that mongrel in them to be the best in the world and to not compromise.”

The question for our sporting authorities is who has the leadership and accountability to make sure that at the next Olympics Canadians can truly punch above their weight in sporting excellence?

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