In February a Canadian athlete will probably, for the first time, win an Olympic gold medal on Canadian soil — an event that will be widely and justifiably celebrated. Failure to win gold medals in Montreal (1976) or Calgary (1988) marks Canada as the only country never to have won a gold medal when hosting an Olympics.

Canadians have won plenty of Olympic gold medals in other countries, and failure to win gold medals in Montreal or Calgary was not a concern for most Canadians. In general, Canadians approved of an implicit social contract with Olympic athletes: “We don’t give you lots of money, but if you achieve Olympic qualifying standards we will send you to the Games.” Under that contract, Canada achieved remarkable results at the Olympics, at a cost per medal far lower than for many other nations.

In 2004, the Canadian Olympic Committee unilaterally changed that contract. A number of young Canadian athletes who had achieved Olympic qualifying standards and were looking forward to their dream of going to the Games in Athens were denied their places on the team. The COC had increased the qualifying standards following a decision to send only athletes who were believed to have a chance of winning a medal.

The new qualifying standards emerged as governments and sport leaders began to fetishize “the medal,” especially “the gold medal.” Under a growing climate of businesslike government in Canada and other countries, of objective-led management, performance measures, accountability, monitoring and evaluation, investments in highpe-rformance sport came to be seen as having only one measurable objective: medals.

Critical comparisons of Canada’s Olympic medal totals with those of Australia, the US or some European countries began to contribute to a sense that Canada does not do very well at the Olympics. This was especially the case in 2000, during the Sydney Olympics. Australia, a country with many similarities to Canada and a smaller population, did particularly well at its home Olympics, and many in the Canadian sport community pointed to the high levels of government funding enjoyed by Australian athletes.

In some ways the comparison with Australia and the focus on only the summer Olympics was unfair. Unlike Australia, Canada is a multi-sport nation, sending full teams to both summer and winter Olympics. A more accurate comparison of Canada’s Olympic success emerges using the combined medal totals, from both summer and winter Games, during each four-year Olympiad. Canadian athletes do well at the Olympics, but Australian athletes have been doing better:

Recent newspaper reports in Canada cite a prediction from an “Olympic guru,” Luciano Barra, that Canadian athletes will win the most medals in Vancouver (29). The art and science of “medal projections” has grown out of some 40 years of academic research attempting to understand why athletes from certain countries win so many medals and, conversely, why athletes from certain countries win so few medals.

Correlations with medal success have been found with, for example, religion (athletes from Protestant countries win more medals), political ideology (accounting for the success of athletes from the former socialist countries), population size (with some obvious exceptions such as India) and GDP (with some obvious exceptions such as Cuba).

More recent research indicates that the best predictive models combine the last two factors. Success is proportional to population — the higher the population of a country, the more medals are won; and the richer a country (as measured by GDP), the more medals are won — richer countries with large populations (e.g., the US, China, Germany) win the most medals. Hosting an Olympics also has an effect, accounting for approximately 2 percent more of the medals than would be predicted by population and GDP. Australian success in Sydney (2000), US success in Salt Lake City (2002) and Chinese success in Beijing (2008) may all be related to this home-team advantage.

But these factors do not explain why Australian athletes have consistently outpaced Canadian athletes in medal performance since 1992. In addition to population, GDP and the hosting advantage, it is now apparent from a European comparative study that the best predictor of success in winning medals is the absolute amount of funding allocated to high-performance sport. The nations that have invested the most in high-performance sport achieve the best results.

Given the evidence that more money leads to more Olympic medals, what do they cost? The few figures that are available vary widely in how they were calculated and significantly underestimate the true cost because they measure only national government spending. Not included is funding from provincial/state and municipal sources, corporate/sponsorship funding, free labour provided by sport volunteers, various forms of fundraising or even the costs borne by athletes and their families.

Given these limitations, conclusions about the cost of medals are problematic. However, it is important to have some sense of the cost per medal in order to have any meaningful high-performance sport policy. Australian studies have provided the most data on medal costs, and their estimates vary widely. For example, in the period before the Sydney Olympics one study suggests that each gold medal cost Australians A$37 million. (or about A$8 million for each medal in general). In two studies of the cost of Australian medals at the Sydney Olympics, the first estimated that each of the 58 medals Australia won in Sydney cost C$4.82 million; the second divided the total reported cost of hosting the Olympics by the number of gold medals won, estimating the cost of each gold medal at A$40 million. Finally, two recent calculations of the cost of Australian medals at the Beijing Olympics achieved similar results. The first study estimated that Australia’s 14 gold medals each cost A$15.6 million. The recently published Crawford Report considered only Australian government spending on Olympic sports in the four years leading up to Beijing, and estimated that each medal cost A$4 million, and each gold medal cost A$15 million.

Under a growing climate of businesslike government in Canada and other countries, of objective-led management, performance measures, accountability, monitoring and evaluation, investments in high-performance sport came to be seen as having only one measurable objective — medals.

In Britain, the National Audit Office reported that each medal won by British athletes at the Athens Olympics (2004) cost the British government £2.4 million. And an estimate of the most expensive medals ever was reported for China, which spent US$3 billion on high-performance sport in the four years leading up to the Athens Olympics — its 32 gold medals each costing some US$100 million.

In two calculations for Canada, one divided the total reported cost of the 1976 Olympics by the number of medals won, estimating that each medal won by a Canadian athlete in Montreal cost C$37 million. The other study estimates that each medal won by a Canadian athlete at the Sydney Olympics cost the federal government C$4.42 million. Craig Mitton, at the University of British Columbia at Okanagan, stated that “on a per capita basis, Australia spent over seven times more on its Sydney Olympic team than Canada, to win four times as many medals.”

Regardless of how they were calculated, two things are evident from these figures. First, it costs a great deal of money to win an Olympic medal, and gold medals are especially expensive. Second, when hosting costs are included in the calculation of medal costs, the 2 percent home advantage is extraordinarily expensive.

Calculations of success vary widely. Luciano Barra predicts that Canada will be both first, and tied for fifth at the Vancouver Olympics. He explains that Canadian athletes will win the most total medals, but will be tied for fifth in the number of all-important gold medals. Under some calculations points are assigned to medals (e.g., gold = 3, silver = 2, bronze = 1) and that can lead to a different ranking of countries. Other calculations of success measure the proportion of medals to the population of a country — countries such as the United States tumble down the rankings in these calculations, while countries such as Jamaica ascend to the top of the medal tables.

While medals and the different ways that they are counted predominate in terms of national rankings, other metrics may be employed. For example, Canada often uses “top eight finishes” to determine its ranking; and calculations sometimes include the number of athletes who achieved “personal best” performances during an Olympic Games.

The sometimes conflicting aims of national sports policies — to achieve international success in sport and to achieve significant increases in broad-based participation in sports (for reasons of population health, social inclusion and so on) — have resulted in sport participation increases becoming a part of definitions of success in countries such as Canada and Britain. Hosting major sport events such as the Olympic Games is so expensive that further justification is often needed to take on that task. For example, Canada’s Federal Policy for Hosting International Sport Events (2004, 2008) mandates various legacies that are expected as a result of hosting the events — these include economic stimulus and “social, cultural and community benefits, including enhanced voluntarism, active citizenship and civic participation, cultural programs reflecting Canadian diversity, physical activity and healthy communities.”

London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics in part because Tony Blair promised that the event would be connected to substantial increases in sport participation, not only in Britain but also in low-income countries. And there are now signs that countries such as Australia are beginning to reject narrow definitions of success based only on medal counts, and are exploring ways to include the health and wellbeing of the population in new definitions of sporting success.

In 2001, Ben Oakley and Mick Green in the UK coined the term “global sporting arms race.” Just as the global arms race involved superpowers attempting to outspend each other in weapons development, Oakley and Green observed that an increasing number of nations are prepared to invest more and more money to achieve their goals of winning more Olympic medals. Governments are apparently engaged in this “race” in order to make symbolic statements about national identity, pride and virility.

The funding strategies are often linked to target-setting campaigns — e.g., China’s Project 119 (referring to the number of gold medals available in the sports being targeted by sport strategists in China) and Britain’s Mission 2012. Canada stepped up its involvement in the global sporting arms race in 2003 when the Own the Podium campaign was planned, shortly after the announcement that Vancouver would host the 2010 Olympic Games. The campaign set a target of 35 medals for Canadian athletes in Vancouver, and budgeted $110 million — some $22 million a year in additional funding for Olympic winter sports for the five years leading up to Vancouver. The federal government is contributing $66 million, and the remaining $44 million is from provincial and corporate sources.

There are clear arguments in favour of Own the Podium. Canada claims that its high-performance sport system is athlete-centred. In such a system it is appropriate to support athletes representing Canada (in terms of training, equipment, competition opportunities and so on) to at least the same level as many of the athletes they will be competing against. Thus, one purpose of the additional funding is to give Canada’s athletes a chance to win.

Own the Podium helped to produce positive results at the Torino Olympics, and in international competition since 2006. But there is something about the campaign that makes many Canadians feel a little uncomfortable. It’s bragging, for gosh sakes! With reference to

Canada has stepped into the global sporting arms race now, and even our nemesis, Australia, is beginning to recognize that it costs more and more money even to stay in the same place in the medal tables.

Canada’s well-established reputation for Olympic hospitality (in Montreal and Calgary), Bruce Kidd wryly suggests that there is something vaguely un-Canadian about inviting the world to BC so that we can kick ass. And there is a nagging sense that we may be setting ourselves up to fail. Isn’t it better to manage expectations rather than to set the bar so high?

There have also been complaints about the program. It is expensive, at a time when such additional expenses seem unreasonable. It is divisive: since most additional funding goes to athletes who are expected to win medals, a number of national team athletes feel like second-class citizens. And it may be promoting a win-at-all-costs attitude — an attitude that Canada came to regret in the late 1980s following the Ben Johnson scandal. Reports that international athletes have not been given adequate training time at the new facilities may or may not be true, but it is clear that Canada is pushing its home-team advantage to the limit. For example, Own the Podium helped to fund the installation of 32 cameras along the luge track at the Whistler Sliding Centre. The cameras are for safety, but they also help coaches to provide instant feedback to the lugers. Those cameras were turned off recently when international lugers came to train at the track.

In the final analysis, there are no guarantees that Own the Podium will work. This is sport — every athlete knows that on any given day, anything can happen; and we know that Canada’s winter sports athletes are about to face an extraordinary pressure of expectations.

Canada has stepped into the global sporting arms race now, and even our nemesis, Australia, is beginning to recognize that it costs more and more money even to stay in the same place in the medal tables. Competitors include countries that seem both willing and able to outspend Canada in order to win medals: wealthy centralized economies such as China; countries that rely primarily on corporate funding such as the US; or countries that use national lottery funding to sustain their high-performance sport programs such as Germany and Norway.

Own the Podium represents a particularly narrow strategy based on an extraordinarily narrow definition of success. After their unprecedented success at the Sydney Olympics, Australians were left with debt, and a population whose only measurable increase in sport participation involved attending more sports events and watching more sports on television. Better planning and a broader definition of success along the lines now being considered in Australia would link Canadian medals with the possibility of all Canadians being able to participate in the sport of their choice, and with improvements in the health and wellbeing of the population.

Athletes representing Canada should be well funded. May they win lots of medals in February. But, in the global sporting arms race, no one can own the podium. At best, Canada may be able to rent it for a short time.

Photo: Shutterstock

Peter Donnelly is director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto.

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