It has become a ritual once every four years where Canada grabs a set of her best athletes, slathers them in red-and-white regalia and drops them onto the biggest athletic stage in the world tied down with expectations of top rankings and medals. When the event ends, they are herded back into the deep-freeze of public consciousness while the nation re-embraces her most beloved passion: hockey. But with the rest of the world catching up to first-world nations in terms of athletic skills and ability, this strategy is increasingly becoming obsolete.
In Athens, Canada finished with a grand total of 12 medals. This is down from 14 medals won in Sydney 2000, and a far cry from the performances in 1996, when 22 medals were won in Atlanta. This sharp decline has led to calls from Canadian Olympic Committee officials for more federal funding, and even a promise of an intervention from the IOC president directly to Ottawa. But is money all that is needed to get our athletes to win more medals? The answer is no, and simple solutions exist that do not require more federal government money.
First, Canadians must pay attention to Olympic athletes for more than a few months every two years. Canadians should appreciate more than hockey players. Every Saturday afternoon before the Hockey Night in Canada double-header, the CBC has Sports Saturday, which covers some of the Olympic sports. Private networks such as Global and CTV should also pick up some slack and give airtime for some Olympic sports coverage. This could give athletes more exposure than what the CBC can currently provide. Imagine: World championship diving before Friends and Train 48 re-runs! Or international baseball in between CSI and Canadian Idol! But there is no reason for them to do so: There are simply not enough viewers to attract decent advertisers. Until there is more interest from the public, athletes will never get the level of attention they deserve.
Second, more Canadian businesses must sponsor our athletes. The story of track cyclist Lori-Ann Muentzer is one example: having all of her wheels break before the Olympics, she could not afford to purchase replacements. Instead, she had to borrow some from her French and Australian counterparts! Even though Ms. Muentzer won gold in her event, the background story speaks volumes on the struggles Canadian athletes must overcome. In order for success to come, stories like these should not even exist. While certain businesses like the Royal Bank and Home Depot have been very generous, still more companies are needed to sponsor Canadian athletes. Conversely, sports organizations need to better allocate their resources. In Athens, there were more Canadian support staff than athletes!
Third, there needs to be a new direction as to how to prepare Canadian Olympians for the "big time". So-called national training centres tear athletes away from their coaches and mentors, and remove elite athletes from local amateur clubs, making the basic development at club level uncompetitive.
However, some athletes who have been sent through the American NCAA system, like hurdler Perdita Felicien and diver Blythe Hartley, have done well in their disciplines. Many other nations' Olympians (especially swimmers) are also competing in the NCAA, making it the most competitive system in the world. Canadians, through the NCAA, could benefit greatly from this exposure to world-class competition: it would give them an idea of what they need to win at a global level, like the Olympics.
Regardless of what happens Canada needs to take a long hard look and then decisive action to make changes before 2008. Beijing is only four years away, and unless something is done immediately a national disaster may be closer than we all think.