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The nation burns athletes but not calories

It takes an Olympics to expose the glaring inadequacies in our national sports programs.

It’s actually a good thing there’s an Olympics every two years now, because it helps to keep the sorry state of Canadian sports in the limelight. You can’t ignore something forever if you’re getting your nose rubbed in it on a regular basis.

Although we’re coming away from Salt Lake City with a good number of medals, I think the consensus in this country is that we could be doing more.

For example I was surprised that Beckie Scott’s bronze medal in cross country skiing was the best finish for a Canadian in the history of the Olympics. The bulk of our country is covered with snow for six months a year, and we have one bronze medal?

We’re a proud nation, whether we know it or not. We like our sports and we like to win at the international level.

But we’re not fanatical about it the way the Americans, Austrians or Australians are. We don’t demand the same level of support for our athletes as they would get in another country, and it shows.

Our top athletes have shown they can compete with the best in the world, and they do extremely well when you consider the limited resources they have had to work with. It takes a special kind of dedication to succeed at that level on $1,100 a month.

Sports funding has increased in recent years after poor showings in the Summer Olympics, as has corporate sponsorship of sports and athletes. Olympic bids in Toronto and Vancouver have also increased the level of awareness.

Throwing more money at the problem isn’t going to do a lot at this stage. More money is definitely needed, but making sure it winds up in the right places is just more important. Consider this Catch-22 – if a sport does poorly at the international level, it receives less funding; but without that funding those athletes have little hope of doing well.

Also consider the general state of physical fitness in Canada. Compared to the U.S. we’re still a little bit healthier on average. Our smoking rate has dropped to below 25 per cent, and people are generally eating better and exercising more. Still, we’re not exactly the picture of perfect health.

Obesity numbers are way up in Canada, especially among children. The Canadian Medical Association believes 25 to 30 per cent of children are overweight, and 12 to 14 per cent are obese, almost tripling between 1981 and 1996.

At the same time, participation in sports is down. Registration is down for a number of sports, including hockey and baseball. Soccer numbers are up, but that’s a rare exception.

High schools have made phys-ed and participation in sports optional, and programs have been hit hard by funding cuts and teacher job actions.

So where exactly is our next generation of Olympic athletes going to come from?

It doesn’t take a research scientist to tie the decline in participation to our weight problem, or to extrapolate that we could combat the problem by increasing participation. It also doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture some of those kids growing up and becoming our Olympic champions.

The CMA is just one of the organizations that is lobbying the Canadian government to bring back the Ministry of Sport and resurrect the Canada Fitness Program.

This would give athletics more prominence in government, and would likely result in more funding for sport organizations and athletes. When you look at it from a health and fitness perspective, it’s more of an investment. The CMA estimate that health problems related to weight cost us over $2 billion in health care every year.

A better sports system can help to keep us active and healthy. Better athletes make better role models for kids to look up to.

Fitter kids sleep better and learn more. More athletes at the development level creates more competition. More competition creates better athletes as the cream rise to the top.

By helping our athletes out, we help ourselves out. It’s not such a stretch.

There would be opponents to the creation of an active Sports Ministry, but when you consider the alternative – a nation of fat couch potatoes whining about how we never win the gold medal – it would be stupid not to be more supportive of sports.

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