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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Paying the price for Olympic medal haul

Some taxpayers ask: What's in it for me?

Posted: 07/31/2012 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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LONDON -- It was a moment that could send a chill down every spine in Canada's high-performance sports community.

Earlier this year, a volunteer at the Canadian men's curling championship expressed some doubt about whether the government should be supporting the country's athletes.

"They want to give the curlers money and they want to take away my OAS," he mused aloud, referring to Old Age Security cheques that currently kick in for Canadians at 65, but will be pushed to 67 in the next decade.

Taxpayers are the main financial supporter of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The federal government spends about $200 million a year on sport, according to Canada's sport minister Bal Gosal.

About $64 million was funnelled to elite athletes this year via Own the Podium, which oversees the competitive aspects of their lives between Games. The athletes also receive direct financial support from Sport Canada. The bill for that comes to almost $27 million this year.

Money also goes towards developing coaches and the cost of hosting both national and international sport events.

Canada is still basking in the glow of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The host country led the gold-medal count with 14 and won 26 overall to finish third.

Sport avoided cuts in this year's federal budget, while the public service shrunk and CBC saw its funding drastically reduced.

"When you look at our Canadian athletes, they are an enormous source of pride for all Canadians," Gosal said Monday in London. "They are exceptional role models for our children and youth. It's very important. We saw that in the Vancouver Olympics how sports brings the community together.

"We are very committed to sports and recreation activities for all Canadians of all ages."

But how long will Canada's goodwill towards sport last in the face of economic uncertainty? At what point does the taxpayer ask "What's in it for me if Canadians win medals at the Olympics?"

The Canadian Olympic Committee's president doesn't think that question will be asked during the London Games.

"I would be surprised if there were many Canadians who asked that question to themselves because they are going to love what they see on television, especially after Vancouver, which rallied our country like never before," said Marcel Aubut. "We were all behind one goal, winning at the Vancouver Games."

Medals in London will be harder to win. Canada's goal is a top-12 finish in the overall standings and the team won its first Sunday, a bronze in women's diving. A strong performance by the team in London keeps their countrymen feeling benevolent towards sport.

"It's really important we don't lose momentum in terms of the impact of the additional financial funding in summer sport, Olympic and Paralympic," said Own the Podium chief Anne Merklinger.

Swimmer Brent Hayden of B.C. hopes those watching at home know they have a stake in every medal earned.

"When you win a medal, that should be hitting the homes and hearts of every single Canadian because we didn't get here on our own," he said.

For teammate Ryan Cochrane, it's about health and reducing obesity.

"These medals really mean more kids active, more kids that can find a sport they really believe in," he said.

A former competitive curler herself, Merklinger expects Canadian medals won in London to impact that volunteer's life. Medals trigger investment that trickles down to community facilities and recreational programs, she pointed out.

"What does it mean to that guy? It might mean something to his grandkids," she said. "It might mean something to the neighbours in the community in which he lives. It might mean something to the quality of the programs delivered into his community in terms of valuing a healthy lifestyle and physical activity."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2012 D4

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