Buy the Podium

I’m writing this at the half-way point of the Winter Games. I’ve heard some rumbling about the “Own the Podium” initiative building already. It’ll undoubtedly get a lot more intense after the final medal count is in.

My reaction to that program when I first heard about it, was (mild) discomfort. Sure, every other country is trying to give their athletes a leg up on winning and national pride is a valuable commodity, well worth “investing” in. But, somehow, I get a feeling there’s a slippery slope here perhaps worth at least posting a warning about somewhere near its edge.

Is it even part of the dialogue any more that the Olympic Games are synonymous with amateur sport? I guess that theme, having been so pointedly evaded by the numerous “sports factory” initiatives of the Russians, Chinese and Germans (of both poles), really doesn’t fulfill any persuasive purpose. Participation by the NHL in the Olympic Games was the final nail in the coffin for the idea of amateurism.

So, now we’re OK with professional athletes as Olympians. I can live with that; life is about change. But if we’re going to consider establishing a new occupational class, mostly or totally sponsored and funded by tax dollars, shouldn’t we consider some ground rules?

I listened to a radio talk show recently where a clearly agitated artist regaled us with dire stories of funding “abuses” by the federal government. Her principal thesis, explicitly stated, was that she, as an artist, was entitled to make a decent living “educating her audience” through her art. She dismissed entirely the notion that economic or competitive factors should play any part in restricting either her career choice or how she chose to spend her time within it. Can we live with this same sort of thinking about ‘sponsored’ professional athletics?

Lawyers (like me) are only too tuned into the potential for litigating “rights”, entitlements” and “equality” at the drop of a hat. At the moment, OTP is kind of a bitty program of about $110M, but wait until there’s some meaningful coin on the table.

So, how much are we going to actually spend to “own” that thing? Well, for a moment, consider the plight of the Toronto Blue Jays in competing with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Then multiply that by at least ten, conservatively speaking.¬†Are we going to support all events, or just some? Careful how you answer that question. Think: “lawyers” and “discrimination”.

When will we be satisfied we’ve reached our goals? The COC conceded today (Feb. 22nd) that we won’t meet “our medal objectives” for the Games. Who will determine those “medal objectives” in future? Will we all get a say? What if we keep failing; will heads roll?

Personally, I’m skeptical about any “business” the government wants to get into. ¬†Athletics and social policy are bound to make strange bedfellows. Let’s hope we don’t bite off more than we want to chew.

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