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The Eh Game

Going for broke in the Olympics doesn’t necessarily guarantee medals or national glory

Andrew Bucholtz
Eh Game

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Australian swimmers like James Magnussen have shown funding doesn't always guarantee gold.

There's clearly a financial component to Olympic success as well as the personal cost of devoting a life to training, but how much funding is enough, and to what lengths should countries go to try to develop athletes? Although public and private programs like Own The Podium and B2ten have played important roles in Canada's success at the London Games, Canada's funding of athletes is still generally moderate to low on the world stage. While throwing more money at Olympic sports might help, other countries' performances show that isn't a guaranteed solution. For example, Australia's often been cited for punching above its weight at the Olympics thanks to heavy government funding, but the Aussies are struggling at these Games and have severely downgraded their medal targets. At the other end of the spectrum, heavily-investing countries like China are finding success on the medal table, but there are questions being raised about the human cost of their win-at-all-costs approach. There are real questions to be asked about the best approach to the Olympics, and there aren't necessarily easy answers.

First, the case of the Aussies' issues suggests that mere funding isn't always the answer (and that even funding can carry controversies). Massive funding has certainly helped the Aussies in the past, as it did in Beijing, where they claimed 14 golds (sixth overall) and 46 medals (fifth overall). However, Australia had won just 20 medals by the start of Monday's action, causing Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates to downgrade their medal expectations from 46 to the 30-to-36 range. They'll probably still hit the latter target (and finish well ahead of Canada), as they had 25 medals through the end of action Tuesday, and they're doing very well in the medals-per-capita standings, so it's not like their funding has completely gone to waste. Australia's performance in London, especially in the pool (where they're launching an inquiry!), does suggests that there are no sure things at the Olympics, though, and that even massive funding doesn't inevitably translate into huge numbers of podium places.

[Slideshow: Canadian Drouin soars to bronze in high jump]

China's issues come from the other direction. The Chinese were dominating the medal standings by the end of Tuesday's action, with 34 golds (four better than the second-place U.S.) and 70 total medals (three more than the U.S.).  However, people both inside and outside China are starting to question their approach, which often involves telling athletes which sports to play, removing them from their families at a young age and taking them away for years of isolated training (wait, China's the Jedi Order now? Must have missed that in George Lucas' latest revisions...) with very limited contact with relatives and friends.  As Sean Gordon points out, the idea isn't all that different from some Western sports' practices; however, the degree the Chinese system takes it to is something else, and that's causing some in China to ask if the whole thing is worth it. It's also worth pointing out that China's stature on the medal table doesn't necessarily endorse their practices; the country has a massive population and pours tons of money into sports, so their success might be thanks to those factors and in spite of their athlete-development model, not because of it. It doesn't sound like China's going to change its approach any time soon, but that doesn't mean countries like Canada should rush to adopt it.

Really, if there is one thing that's a predictor of Olympic success, it might be hosting the Games. China and Canada did very well in the 2008 and 2010 Olympics respectively, and now the host Brits are potentially heading for a record medal haul and their best finish since 1920. Some of that might be thanks to the home-field effect from the "London Wave" of enthusiastic fans, while some of that's certainly thanks to the increased funding the U.K. put into sports in the lead-up to these Games. Simply aiming to host an Olympics isn't a simple solution either, though, as the competitive bidding process and massive amounts of cash required raise questions about the validity of that approach, and winning a Games for your country certainly isn't something that can be done every few years.

[Slideshow: Canada's disappointing performances in London]

On the whole, would Canada do better at the Olympics with more public and private funding for sport? Likely. As the Aussies' performance in London shows, though, while money may help, even the best-funded programs can stumble at times. Moreover, funding has to be seen as a tradeoff against other priorities; governments in particular don't exist just to fund sports, and boosting funding in one area tends to lead to either cuts elsewhere or higher taxes. Adopting some elements of China's approach wouldn't guarantee success, either, and it might be further than Canadian society's willing to go in quest of Olympic gold. What's clear is that developing Olympic athletes comes with a variety of costs, both financial and personal, and there's no guarantee that those expenditures will ever reap dividends. There's no easy answer on exactly where to draw the line, either.

More Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Canada Sports:
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Rosie MacLennan's remarkable journey
Why Brent Hayden is quitting swimming
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