The Canadian Olympic Committee recently announced that starting in Beijing 2008, Canadian athletes who bring home an Olympic medal would receive fiduciary compensation for their accomplishments. (http://www.tsn.ca/olympics/news_story/?ID=223220&hubname=)
If the term "fiduciary compensation" seems out of place, or not apropos, it is to reflect my disgust at how out of place this move is by the COC. Let me explain - but to start a quick review of what the COC is proposing.
Canadians who win a gold medal will earn $50,000 CDN - this includes $50,000 for every member of a team sport that takes home the gold. Silver will net athletes $15,000 and bronze will earn them a cool $10K. No news yet on what the coaches will be paid - nothing is my guess. These prizes will apply to both summer and winter Olympics. I will remind my readers - or perhaps inform them - that Canada is aiming for a top 16 performance at the 2008 summer Olympics, and a 1st place podium finish in Vancouver 2010.
Without going too far into the studies, let's simply state that all research demonstrates that money equals medals. It is a very simple and direct correlation that has been proven over and over again, starting with the East German drug machine of the 1970s into the power from down under's success in home town Australia in 2000. So with this in mind, it would seem that Canada is finally starting to do something to improve upon our dismal Olympic performance (at least in the summer Olympics). I would beg to differ.
The problem you see is that athletes don't need money after the fact, they need it before. To explain - the average Canadian Olympic athletes lives on $18,000 a year. This is below the poverty line. For athletes to have success at the Olympic level, they must devote over 40 hours a week to training. As such, it is difficult for them to have a regular job, let alone one that pays well and allows them to work around their training schedule. Athletes further need time off to compete - time in which they don't earn money. Remember that we are not speaking over your Alex Rodriguez's here, but rather your Alex Baumans - these athletes are hardly recognizable by the vast majority of the population outside their immediate family. Moreover, it usually costs athletes money to hire a coach, to pay for training facilities, or to buy their equipment (depending on their sport). Athletes further have to eat well and have money for rehabilitation and athletic therapy, which they inevitably require. All this costs money.
Every four years, Canadians lament the downfall of our Olympic position. Canada, as a summer nation, has not faired well at many summer Olympics. Moreover, Canada is the only country to host the Olympics and not win a gold medal - a feat we managed twice, in Montreal, 1976 and in Calgary, 1988. Vancouver promises to be different. In fact, even the most pessimistic of Canuck fans would be hard pressed not to expect success in Vancouver. In recent winter campaigns, Canada has been steadily climbing the sports pantheon, to the point where Canada can hope for a first place podium finish in 2010 - at worse, we will certainly get that gold medal! And for all those medals our athletes collect, they will receive a nice cheque. Again, or so the pundits would have you believe.
In fact, this money is a farce, and i'll tell you why, in three distinct points:
1. Athletes need the money before hand, not after!! Amateur athletes do not have long careers, and many have 1 or 2 shots at Olympic glory. In order to ensure their continued presence in a sport, athletes need money. Winning at the Olympic level takes hard work and determination, but many times it is unexpected athletes who win medals. These athletes may not stick around a sport long enough to have that chance if they don't have money to live on. Giving them money afterwards seems like a great carrot to shoot for - and no doubt that it is - but I can guarantee you that athletes would prefer the money prior to the competition.
2. Athletes earn money through sponsorship. The truth of the matter is that athletes gain to prosper enormously when they win an Olympic medal. They become household names over night and cash in through corporate sponsorships. This is not as easily stated as it would seem, but the sponsorship of winning is easily worth the small sums of money that is currently proposed. Few Olympic medalist go on to financial fame as did Donovan Bailey (who has made millions), but it is certainly the case that their medal win brings in at least what the COC is offering.
3. Why even give athletes money when we have other social problems? Why give an athlete money when we have health care problems? Indeed, the case can be made that every dollar we give to a high performance athlete is taken away from our social welfare system. That is absolutely true. There has actually been criticism of Australia for dumping money directly to high performance athletes, while the country continues to suffer ballooning health care costs. The solution is quite simple. To lay it out for everyone, an active populace cuts down on health care costs. Money in grass root sports programs lead to healthy active kids, who become healthy active adults, rather than drains on the health system. The return on investment is easily worth the funding of grass roots physical education program. As a by product, high performance athletes are targeted at a young age, which leads to development through the system. In fact, funding of facilities leads directly to both an active population and venues to keep high performance athletes in Canada (not to mention their coaches). The entire system is cyclical and simply requires funding at the outset - without it, the whole things breaks down. So why give the athletes money at the end of the cycle when they don't need it?
I can't say how bitter sweet this decision is. On one hand, it may lead to 1 or 2 more medals in Beijing. On the other hand, it does not address the real issue, which is institutional underfunding across all sports. The next time you complain about Canada's medal haul at the Olympics, just remember that it is not a simple failure by an individual athlete, but rather an indictment of our country's failure to adequately provide the system that leads to success, both in the real cost of health care and on the podium.