Bruce Kidd - Wednesday Feb. 5, 2014 22:31 ET

Bruce Kidd: Focus on medals could be setback to Olympic, anti-doping movements

Past Olympian looks back at recommendations of Charles Dubin and how far we've strayed

Charles Hamelin victorious in Vancouver 2010
Is our focus on medals taking away from the true meaning of the Olympics? (Photo: Radio-Canada)

(Bruce Kidd competed for Canada at the 1964 Summer Olympics in track and field. He is a well-known commentator on sports and Olympic issues, and is a professor at the University of Toronto.)

If he were still alive, I suspect that Charles Dubin would be concerned by the unrelenting preoccupation with medals represented by such slogans and programs as Own the Podium. In his report after the Ben Johnson scandal, Dubin criticized the “climate in sport [where] only the winner is accorded praise and financial reward.”

The emphasis solely on winning was wrong, Dubin said.

According to him, it was just such a climate in Canada in the 1980s that produced the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs that his Commission uncovered. He recommended a new focus on improving participation levels across genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. He said that if the expectations and opportunities in the amateur and Olympic sports were not broadened then “there is no justification for government funding and support of sport.”

In the early 1990s, the Canadian amateur and Olympic sport community took Dubin’s recommendations seriously introducing ambitious gender equity policies in most jurisdictions and institutions, creating a new Canadian Sports Council where many traditionally under-represented groups were included, giving elected athletes voice and vote on NSOs, and of course, strengthening anti-doping policies and protocols. In the early 2000s, some of those initiatives were enshrined in the Canadian Sport Policy of 2002 and the Physical Activity and Sport Act of 2003.

But while the vestige of those efforts can still be felt, the focus on widely accessible opportunities and broadly democratic governance has dissipated. The equity gains of the 1990s are slowly being rolled back, youth participation in sport is falling and the Canadian Sports Council has disappeared altogether.

Today the pursuit of the podium is as narrow as it was in the 1980s.

Like Dubin a generation ago, I worry that it distorts the meaning of the Olympic Movement and amateur and Olympic sports. I’ve identified with the Olympic Movement ever since 1952 when my father was the entire CBC television crew for the Helsinki Olympics and he so excited me with his stories that I recalibrated my athletic ambitions to be an Olympian. I was always taught to believe that the overwhelming purpose of the Olympic Movement was to enhance education for global citizenship.

Sport was considered the vehicle for that education, not the end in itself. The idea is that in the shared pursuit of excellence athletes, coaches, officials, spectators and tourists will learn social responsibility and constitute a growing network of public opinion and activism. It should serve as a counter to the ever-present calls for violence against the ‘other’ and preparations for war.

I’m convinced that many Olympic participants still experience the Olympic Movement this way, but they’re rarely given encouragement to do so.

Winning isn’t everything

There was much to admire in the hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and the performances of Canadian athletes, but I was saddened by the preoccupation with medals expressed by Own the Podium.

We should have focused our energies on welcoming the world in the context of the difficult issues of the day rather than preparing loudly to beat the pants off them. (I was equally disappointed by the similar approach the Brits took in London 2012.)
I’m saddened today when the Canadian Olympic Committee discourages athletes from engaging in the vital debate about human rights at the Sochi Olympics on the grounds that such discussion might be a “distraction” and that the Games should only be about sport.

In the Dubin report, he wrote that “there will be those who say that this view of sport and its purposes is idealistic and out of date, that I have taken too high a moral tone, and that the modern world of sport has progressed beyond the point where the original amateur ideals … have any meaning or validity.”

Perhaps that is also true about me. But I believe that those ideals are more relevant than ever before and still worth fighting for.

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