I Know Just How you Feel

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.”

This entry was posted in Politics and Policy, Sports and Exercise, Thinking Broadly and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to I Know Just How you Feel

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    I think your blog was more balanced than mine. Damn.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Well, that merits a mature and balanced response. Something like, ‘Nyah, nyah’ perhaps? Or, perhaps more apropos, ‘Tag! You’re it!’. Reading yours this morning was what inspired me to dig this one out of my archives, so many thanks. (For those wanting to read Jim’s piece on the Olympics, here ’tis.)

  2. John thinks there should be an All-Drugged Olympics —
    “Let’s see what all-out drug enhancement can really do.”

    I read somewhere that a majority (!) of the Olympic athletes,
    when polled, said they would be willing
    to die within a year if only they could win Gold.
    “War” Heroes…

    John also thinks there should be an All Amateur Olympics.
    People would be chosen from around the world by lottery
    and they would compete, totally untrained in their event.
    The luge — go for it !– what could go wrong?
    The high-jump? Ditto!

    I said it’d be like watching America’s Funniest Home Videos.
    (which I can’t watch, by the way, cracking your back in two
    just isn’t that funny to me).

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yeah, I expect there are athletes who approach their sport with the fervour of war, just as there are similar nuts (now there’s some balance for Jim!) in almost any area of human endeavour. I mean, why else would people work themselves to death in our (overall) affluent society? John’s idea of the ‘all-drugged, all-the-time’ Games is sort of like the software mantra: If there’s a bug you can’t fix,highlight it and call it a feature. If we can’t control the use of performance-enhancing drugs, maybe we should just give go with it. Of course, that all-or-nothing thinking hasn’t necessarily served us well in other spheres . . .

  3. By chance in 1988 John happened to swim
    in our condo area’s indoor pool
    with two of the Canadian Olympics runners
    in the 1988 4×400-meter Relay — on Ben Johnson’s team —
    and told me afterwards, “I was barely half way across the pool
    when those two were finished and in one effortless movement had pulled themselves up and out of the pool at the other end.
    They looked like Gods!”

    Wouldn’t you know it, the only day I didn’t go with him!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Life is so unfair, isn’t it? And as for the runners/gods, any finely honed human capacity is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? We likely don’t celebrate it enough, day to day.

  4. Alison says:

    As a “non athletic” child – who went on to be a pretty non athletic adult – I feel very strongly that we need to encourage those who are NEVER going to be “Olympic champions”! As I struggle now to be more active, and to find activities that I can participate in at my own level, let’s hope that they DO put money into public programs for activity. I do see some glimmers of hope??

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – I remember getting into track and gymnastics in school, briefly. Very briefly. Truly, looking back on it, I have no idea what the purpose of our physical education was, but it sure didn’t seem to be to encourage activity in the general population. Of course, we know more now about the value of movement – pretty much any movement – so it’s hardly fair for me to judge a 50-year-old curriculum by current standards. If there’s some movement (hah) to inclusiveness in this area – offering opportunities for the athletic as well as options for the non – that would be a good thing.

  5. Then, there is the headed-to-the-Olympics child: do other siblings in the family feel the huge deprivation of attention, dollars, fund-raising, and all that it takes to propel that one family member towards the podium? You and Jim Taylor both make excellent points.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – You make a good point,too. At what cost excellence, both to the athlete and their family? The same could apply, I presume, to any pursuit of excellence at such a level.

  6. So I guess it seems to go back to “Moderation in All Things.”
    How very dull, though.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Hmm. Maybe we can have excellence without excess, although it’s suspicious that they seem to share the same root. I’ve heard many beautiful singers who are amateurs; read many good writers (ahem) who don’t make a living at it; and so on. Is it a local versus global perspective, perhaps?

  7. Norm Haug says:

    There is a lot to criticize in the Modern Olympics: scandal, corruption, political posturing and massive amounts of money that could be used for social programmes or infrastructure improvements. Our cities could all look like East Berlin before the wall came down. Who among us would wish to live there? There is much more to the Olympics than athletics. Every athlete has a story to tell and the CBC has done a good job of profiling many of these stories. They are usually very heart warming and chronicle the long arduous road to the Olympics and the immense pride in the athletes by their communities.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Norm – I’d sure love to hang onto the good bits (the commitment to excellence, the willingness to sacrifice for a goal or a team mate, the community involvement), while rooting out the bad bits (the corruption, the win-at-all-costs mentality that some have). I don’t know if it can be done, nor where to start, really. Maybe we need at least some spectacular events.

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