Monday, March 01, 2010

What's to be Proud Of?

What a relief! The Vancouver Olympics are over, and sure they were fun, once the sunk cost was accepted. And with their end, I can hope the barrage of assertions that my pride in my country has increased because of our medal performance will subside, and I will be left alone by our national media (yes, I know, I can simply turn it off, but the benefits still outweigh this significant cost at the margin each time I decide).
Why should I be proud of Canada winning a lot of medals? I'd perhaps be proud of myself if I'd won one, or proud of someone I coached, or perhaps proud of a family member who won one if I felt I had contributed (though more on that in a later post), or I if were a willing sponsor of a medalist's activities.
But what contributes to our national medal performance, which is what I am told should make my heart swell? This is rather well understood, as Dan Gardner points out in a recent column.
A legion of analysts has crunched the numbers to figure out what factors determine a country's medal haul at the Olympics. The evidence suggests four factors matter most.
Not surprisingly, the size of the country's population makes a big difference. So does the country's gross domestic product. There's also a small bump from hosting the Games. And lastly, "the best predictor of success in winning medals is the absolute amount of funding allocated to higher performance sports," writes Peter Donnelly, director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto.
Spend more money and, other things being equal, you will get more medals. It's that simple. Analysts and officials know this. They even make dollars-per-medal calculations.
Increasing our population arises from activities that would hardly fill me with pride, or by importing people, though those who are imported seem not to feature much at the Winter Olympics. I'll confess to some pride in our GDP, as I have certainly contributed, and very willingly, to its growth. I am hardly proud we hosted the Games; I have always opposed that.
So what of the increase in government funding (the primary source of our athletic funding)?
On this I am with Dan again:
Stand back and look at Olympic funding around the world and it's obvious that nations are locked in an arms race. Each seeks to beat the other by boosting funding but they find it is harder and harder to pull ahead by spending more. Worse, "it costs more and more money even to stay in the same place in the medal tables," notes Peter Donnelly.
Now, does any of this sound like a fair athletic contest? Not really. It's a funding competition. The "winners" are those countries most willing to take money from health care and jobs and other national priorities and spend it on the Olympics.
Canada could win this competition, if that's what Canadians want. We're a rich country. We could outspend the Chinese. For a while.
But would that be something to be proud of? No. It would be foolish. And shameful.
And yes on that point, I am ashamed of my forced investment in this wasteful and useless effort.
Again Dan:
What would make us deservedly proud would be a Canadian government that said the Olympics are out of control and demanded drastic reform. But that, I'm afraid, is considerably less likely than a gold medal for China's curlers.
Of course this Olympic drug for our media and the apparent majority of Canadians who love this event is now deeply in their systems and no doubt we will hype up funding even more; where will the money come from?
I have a modest suggestion. Why not include on our tax forms a new check box, like the one that currently exists for political contribution, this one dedicated to contribution to 'Own the Podium' (retch) funding? I would be happy if such funding were then limited to money raised by such check box contributions. I'm delighted to a degree if you want to contribute.
Of course this won't work; in the next Olympics we would drop in the medal table, and the clamor would start from those who checked yes to get me to pay as well.
Now even if we went to fully voluntary contribution, I would still experience some negative externalities. Every couple of years I would have to be exposed over two weeks to the world's most insipid national anthem, sung at top voice by a band of people chosen for lack of singing ability, smiling into cameras like beaming Moonies.
Pride indeed.


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