Sometimes, life intervenes. I have no new blog this week. Instead, I offer an op-ed piece I had published after the Australia Summer Olympics but not previously seen in this space. The players may have changed; the game, not so much.
You, with the pen, stop right there. I know what you’re doing. You’re writing your MP, proposing an increase in funding for amateur athletes. Mesmerized by the undeniable beauty of all that faster, higher, stronger activity, you want more Canadians on the podium in four years. You think we’ve been letting these kids down with inadequate and inconsistent funding. I know just how you feel.
And you, over there, I know about your letter, too. Dismayed by reports of continued drug abuse and allegations of judging improprieties, you think we already spend too much on activities (many can hardly be called “sports”) conducted under the auspices of an organization that has a world-class reputation for corruption. I know just how you feel, too.
Before we act on our feelings, either way, let’s think about what we’re trying to achieve.
Let’s start by looking at what the Olympics have become. In modern times they started as a celebration of amateur sports, but today, as one TV commentator said, “The only amateurs in the Games are those running the show.” Some level of professionalism is now required to compete credibly, never mind successfully.
If the Games are not an amateur sporting contest, what are they? In ancient times, historians tell us, they were a surrogate for more active and nasty forms of warfare. There is a good case to be made that the modern Games, too, have become a proxy for war.
Some commentators seem as devastated by Canada’s poor showing in medals and personal-best performances as they would be by a military defeat with territory or sovereignty at stake. They see sporting performance as a matter of national pride. Australia has shown how to prevail on this battlefield: dramatically increase funding levels and recruit foreign athletes as mercenaries.
Some athletes seem to value victory more than their health, physical or mental. The taking of drugs by a few raises the competitive bar so that chemical use becomes the price of entry for all. Even without drug-enhanced performances, the level of competition is now so high that many athletes put their lives on hold to train, because nothing less will produce success. Sacrifices like these might seem appropriate, might even be expected, in times of war.
Some countries treat their athletes as sport’s equivalent of cannon fodder. China is reported to be well-advanced in its preparations for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. The prospect of Olympic triumphs apparently justifies six hours of daily training for child gymnasts aged 3 to 10, with parental visits limited to once weekly.
If Olympic competition is war, are we in or out? Will we engage in the equivalent of an arms race, spending whatever it takes to secure podium positions? Will we subsidize individual athletes’ decisions to sacrifice everything in the pursuit, not of excellence, but of victory? Will we conscript children into athletic programs, churning out little competing machines for the glory of the state? I hope not.
If we want to reject the war model for sport, we can choose to treat the Olympics as entertainment. Professional athletes, like those in the PGA, NBA, and NHL, are entertainers; we pay to see them perform. Golfers, basketball stars and hockey players earn more than curlers because their games make better TV. Tough on the curlers, but there it is.
By and large, private money supports the entertainment business, through corporate sponsorships and the sale of tickets and TV rights. Let Canadian athletes who have the will and the capability to compete at the world level get private funding, as other entertainers do. If the entertainment value of their sport determines their funding—if our gymnasts and swimmers can find sponsors but our badminton players and javelin hurlers cannot—then so be it.
And what of public money? Which letter shall we write to our MP? Oddly enough, maybe the principles of war can guide us here. Students of war learn that its first principle is “to establish and maintain the aim”; it applies equally to any human endeavour. To be successful, we must decide what we’re trying to do and then keep at it.
Public money is for the public good, so that should be our aim in spending it. Let tax monies go to programs to encourage children to participate in healthy activities, and to encourage an increasingly sedentary adult population to get up off the couch. Many Olympians tell of being inspired by another Olympian. It seems that, for the rest of us, something other than Olympic gold is needed to get us up and moving.
It won’t be easy. It will likely mean fewer Canadians on the podium. But maybe we will all become a little faster, higher, and stronger. The next time we hear an athlete describe the thrill of achieving a little piece of perfection with an imperfect instrument—the human body, mind and spirit—maybe more of us will be able to say, “I know just how you feel.”