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Winter Olympics: Gold Rush or Even Ground?

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In 1985, robbers broke into the home of John Kondrads, a retired Australian Olympic swimmer. The thieves took 16 medals including the gold medallion Konrads was awarded for winning a grueling 1500 meter race at the Rome Olympics in 1960. The swimming champion missed all his medals, but he never thought he'd see his precious Olympic gold again...

My boys are athletes so I know that any award means a lot to a young man. I once won a gold medal for a book I wrote, and I can barely describe what it meant to me. Years of lonely effort and faith get concentrated by an odd kind of alchemy into a small disk that says for the rest of your life that -- once -- you competed at the highest level and became -- for a fleeting moment -- the very best.

It's heady stuff, and it hardly even matters what field it was. The world's champion sponge-diver is still the world's champion.

Awards like this are Greek in origin. The Greeks, of course, gave us very cool stuff like democracy and souvlaki, but it is their enduring idea of excellence that drives the world to hold an Olympics every four years. It also drives the young men and women who compete in each Olympiad to sacrifice so much of themselves simply to be able to test their skill on even ground against the best in the world.

I imagine the thieves who broke into John Konrad's house did it for money knowing that some collector somewhere would pay big bucks for an Olympic gold medal. Still, I can't imagine what the collector himself got out of it. Who would want another man's medal, unless it was your father's, or your brother's or your best friend's? Excellence is not something you can steal, borrow or manipulate. It's something you admire and strive to achieve. The admiration of excellence, the unspoken recognition of the absolute absence of equivocation or compromise is what drives every aspiring champion whether they eventually win, place or show. There is no cherry that you can put on top of being the undisputed best at something. It is the solitary, unadorned cherry that waits there at the Olympic heart of excellence. The Greeks called it ar-e-te. For a while this single idea made their civilization the brightest light in the world, and that is why we still hold an Olympics every four years.

Recently, somebody in America told John Konrads that the swimmer's stolen medal was being sold illegally. Now he has it back again. Good. Konrads was -- indisputably -- the best in the world from his moment of glory in 1960 until the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. He deserves to warm in the glow from that medal for the rest of his life.

Okay. Where am I going with this?

Well today, everyone's preparing for the Winter Olympics next February. As far as Olympics go, Canada is the only country to have hosted three Olympiads (correct me if I'm wrong), but they also have one of the most laughable Olympic medal records: (feel free to tell me just how bad). This is not exactly because Canadians are cheap. There's a much larger reason behind what the world sees as characteristic Canadian cheapness. It's simply this, Canadians are NOT risk-takers. Everything about Canada is oriented towards security. Canadians' second favorite topic is the 'social safety net' by which we mean unemployment insurance, and yes, health insurance.

There are various theories about why this is. Maybe it has something to do with needing to remain warm and well-fed during the 'winter', a very mild word for the time of year when the ice-age returns to claim Canada. Or maybe its because the Loyalists who left the newly independent United States were a group of people who wanted to avoid republican responsibilities like self-determination and self-creation by nestling in the smug comfort of the British Empire. -Dunno. In my youth I wasted a lot of time thinking about the difference between our two countries. I have to admit that I still don't know why Canadians are such timid spenders, and I've decided it doesn't matter. --What really matters is Canadians don't fund their amateur athletes.

This is strange because the country is sports-mad. Canadians favorite topic of conversation is Hockey and they're obsessed with medal performance in international competitions. This year, in order to achieve an edge for the Olympics, the Vancouver Olympic Committee (Vanoc) has decided to restrict the training time of other nations -read the U.S.- at Olympic facilities like my local (Richmond, BC) skating oval as well as the luge course and ski slopes of Whistler. Canadian athletes are now training like mad at these facilities in order to hone the edge of practiced familiarity before medal-time, next February.

Is anyone surprised that this has prompted criticism including a New York Times article called "Canada Protects Home Advantage At Olympics"? (View that article here)

I want to say aloud that this kind of gimmickry cannot win anything worth having. Medals won this way will be tainted and will make Canada's athletes the Mahmoud Ahmedinejinxes and Hamid Karzai's of athletics...shabby champions of rigged competitions... international objects of scorn and derision. To me, the color and composition of the medals Canada might win are unimportant. -Let's simply bring on the best in the world, and see how we fair in the kind of scrupulously honest contest that only Canada, the most practiced of Olympic venues, can guarantee.

Now, IF Canada's athletes fail and IF that is important to Canadians, they should begin spending more money training young men and women to excel at an international level instead of handing them a last minute crib sheet as they head into their biggest international test. I don't doubt that Canadian athletes have the hearts and souls of champions, but I know that compared to many other countries their training and equipment are significantly underfunded.

Despite Canada's pathetic level of amateur athletic funding, construction for the winter Olympiad has become a pork barrel that has spilled wildly over-budget to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. This is a recessional year and because the U.S. (Canada's only neighbor and best source of tourism) is broke, Americans are traveling and spending much less than they ordinarily do. So faced with Olympic debt and low tourism, Canadians are becoming very disillusioned about the social benefits of this incredibly expensive Olympiad. (You can read more about that here in the CBC.com article "Canadians Sour on Olympic Benefits, Poll Finds')

The upshot of all this is that Vanoc now needs a large 'medal count' to justify the expense of its poorly managed Olympics in order to prevent truly embarrassing questions. But I'm asking if Canada is willing to sacrifice its reputation as the Jeff Daniels or Bill Pullman of nations simply to achieve the success, popularity and immunity from investigation (and possibly prosecution) that a large number of medals might bring?

I'm asking 'what do countries really want from an Olympiad?' The choices this year seem to be between counting a few extra medals or watching the finest, most highly-trained athletes in the world compete on even ground for arete. All that vanishing money might not buy Canada any extra medals, but it might fund the kind of honesty, fairness and integrity that used to be synonymous with Canadian hospitality.

We have hosted the Olympics more times than any other nation. We should know better than anyone in the world how to throw a good Olympic party. Even in this bad year, we can show the rest of the world how it's done.