Why own the podium?

So, Canada's medal haul yesterday was apparently tied for the highest single day total for us in the Olympics. The question is, so what? Would anything have been any different if we had been shut out? What, at the end of the day, does it mean for a country to win Olympics medals? What does it mean for Canada to succeedat the Olympics?

There has been a lot of talk about Canada's "Own the Podium" program, and the goal of "winning" the Olympic medal count. Questions are asked about whether we invest enough in our elite athletes, and whether existing investment will or should continue. It seems to me that this begs the question, what exactly is the goal of producing successful elite athletes? Is the idea that we need elite athletes to inspire our youth to participate in sport? Why then do we not worry about our support for our elite scientists? How about our policy analysts? Our Early Childhood Educators? Surely the contribution made by these groups to society is more significant and important, especially given that our country is still plagued by homelessness, poverty, illness and inequality.

One could look at sports such as speed skating, cross-country skiing and biathalon and say, perhaps, that encouraging excellence in these sports fosters skills that could actually be used in the real world. It's a bit of a stretch, but plausible. But bobsledding? Ski jumping? Curling? They may be all fine and good as sports, but what do we prove by funding athletes to excel at them? Participate in them, sure. Lots of fun. But important? Not really.

And of course there is men's hockey, Canada's "big deal." If we win gold in hockey, with a team loaded with multi-million dollar professional athletes, should we be excited? Did we prove anything? I can still remember when the Olympics used to be about "amateur" athletics and the debate began about allowing professional "dream teams" to compete. If anyone doubts that the Olympics is more about commercial exploitation and profit than athletic excellence, they need look no further than the slippery slope of its professionalization and the inclusion of dramatic and tv-friendly sports such as snowboarding and skeleton.

And, at the end of the day, if that's what the Olympics are going to be about, fine. Who am I to decide what others want? All I ask is we stop pretending that we're doing something we're not. We're not "bringing the world together," "celebrating global community" and all that. If it was about global community and cooperation, bidding for the Olympics wouldn't be a viscious and absurdly expensive competition and hosting the Olympics would require dollar amounts approaching and exceeding government spending on social and other programs. And, if the Olympics truely was a global celebration, countries wouldn't gloat and glorify the failings of other countries in hosting the Olympics.

So lets celebrate the accomplishments of our athletes, as we should celebrate the accomplishments of so many other Canadians. But let's not pretend that "owning" the podium matters, or is even a worthy or important policy goal.