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COLUMNISTS

Mon, August 30, 2004

Canada facing Olympian task


Let the Games end and the dissection begin.

This is what we do after every Olympics. Only this time it seems more relevant, more troubling, more in need of scrutiny.

This is what we do in the land of the navel-gazers where our national obsession seems to be trying to comprehend levels of defeat.

But after the Games of performances lost it isn't just Canadians who were frustrated. For the record, the umbrella organization, the Canadian Olympic Committee, shares their pain.

"The rest of the world is leaving us behind," said Mark Lowry, rather candidly, on the final day of the Athens Olympics. "The model we have in this country doesn't work.

"Simply doing what we're doing right now is insufficient."

Lowry happens to be the executive director of sport for the COC. It is his job to analyze results at the end of an Olympics. The documents here were troubling but predictable. The future for better Olympic performances, frankly, is dim.

"Is winning more medals what we want to do?" asked Chris Rudge, rhetorically. Rudge is the CEO of the COC. He is relatively inexperienced in his position to be providing new answers to the same old questions.

"Canadians by nature are egalitarian," he said. "We are a very conflicted society (trying to be everything to everyone). It's one of the things that makes Canada good, but there's always this frenzy over whether we're winning enough."

There is no frenzy this time: We're not winning enough. Twelve medals may look decent on paper but not in any kind of reasonable assessment. Kicking butt in trampoline, synchronized diving and women's wrestling is nobody's idea of Olympic success. The 12 medals won here were the least since winning 10 in Seoul in 1988.

Indisputable fact: Four world champions in their sports -- Alexandre Despatie, Emilie Heymans, the men's rowing eights and Perdita Felicien -- ended up finishing fourth, fourth, fifth and DNF, respectively.

INDISPUTABLE

Second indisputable fact: Six of the 12 medals won by Canadians were once by first-time Olympians, most of them of little expectation.

Third indisputable fact: There were 34 Canadians ranked in the top five in their sport prior to the Olympics. Only nine of them ended up winning medals.

"We have to change the sports system," Rudge said. "We have to change what we're doing. We have to be more about excellence."

Talking change is nice. Making it happen is another matter entirely. The plan -- if it can be carried out with any kind of efficiency -- is to target a smaller number of sports, stop trying to be everything to everyone, upgrade coaching and bring in more international coaches and increase investment in the areas where success seems more likely and decrease in those of low expectation.

Typically, being Canadian, we're still giving money to too many sports with too little chance for success.

But cries of under-funding hardly is relevant to missed opportunities in Athens. The divers, Despatie and Heymans, worked with one of the best coached and organized programs in Canada. Felicien had an entire team working with her. The rowers came out of a program alleging to be the model for other Canadian sports.

All of them still messed the bed.

"Why did that happen?" Ridge said. "What is it about converting (past performance into medals) that plagues the Canadian sports system? We certainly don't have an answer."

But Lowry maintains "those results weren't about money. I don't know why this happens. I don't believe it's an indictment of Canadians. We're going to talk to the athletes and try to understand why."

And if it was difficult in Athens, wait four years when the Olympic Games move to Beijing. China won 62 medals here in 20 different sports, gold in 14 different disciplines and it has only just begun.

"Four years from now there are going to be 40 less medals up for grabs because the Chinese are going to grab them," Lowry said.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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