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Canada at the Games

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After a slow start to the Beijing Games — no medals in the first seven days — Canadian athletes rallied to finish with 18 medals — six more than Athens in 2004, and four more than Sydney in 2000. We’re still shy of the 22 medals we won in Atlanta in 1996 (with a heartbreaking 11 fourth place finishes to lament) but it feels good to be moving up again.

Still, while 2008 was an improvement, we ranked 14 th on the total medal list (19 th for gold medals) behind several countries with smaller populations, less wealth, and less infrastructure for developing athletes. Admittedly, most of those developing countries don’t have our divided focus on winter and summer sports, but it’s something to consider with Canada snow-free better than half the year.

Australia has about 12 million fewer people than Canada, yet they ranked fifth in the overall medal count and sixth for gold medals.

The Ukraine ranked 11 th for gold medals and 10 th overall, despite the fact that their GDP per capita is about one sixth of Canada’s.

Romania has 10 million fewer people and less than a third of our Gross Domestic Product per capita, but finished the Games with one more gold medal than Canada.

Jamaica, a country with about 1/14 th of our population and a fifth of our per capita GDP, earned six gold medals to Canada’s three. Kenya finished with five gold medals, and 14 total medals.

A look at the rankings shows that you don’t need to be a wealthy nation to succeed at the Olympics, or have a massive population. Excellence does not develop better in totalitarian countries like China where children are recruited to sports at a young age, or in capitalist countries like the U.S. that rewards athletes with millions of dollars. Countries that host the Games do get a boost as they do focus more funding on sports, but that didn’t stop Russia — almost 30 years without a Games — from placing third in Beijing.

I’m guessing that medals have more to do with culture than with anything else.

Which begs the question: Can Canada really, truly compete with the rest of the world in any sport we see fit? Even in sports we only seem to care about every four years when the Olympics roll around?

Somewhere down the line we have to face the fact that as a nation we are simply not that fit. We are not a nation of athletes.

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