Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Our Invisible Athletes

I wrote this editorial for a job application a few months ago and for a long time I meant to get around to posting it but... I guess the holidays happened and I, like most others, went into a sort of holiday hibernation. Anyways, as I re-read what I had wrote back in November I realize just how poignant the title of this post is and just how timely the subject matter happens to be. With the recent passing of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke the lack of awareness of amateur athletes and amateur sport has become even more pronounced. How many of us knew who Burke was and what she had accomplished for not only her country but also for her sport? I hope that this editorial can at least provoke a discussion on what it means to be an amateur athlete in a country that, for the most part, tends to relegate the accomplishments of non-professional athletes to brief, liner note-esque blurbs on the last page of the sports section.

"Recently I came across an article about a high school in Maryland that is considering splitting their required one credit in physical education into two half-credits - one remaining in education and the other in financial literacy. What will happen if schools begin to pare down their physical education requirements? The answer is obvious. I, for one, am tired of hearing about rising obesity rates and declining numbers in physical activity. Courtesy of the federal government's recent "Obesity Report" we all know that one in four Canadian adults are obese and that measured obesity among youths has increased 2.5 times in the last decade. This is the topic du jour and it has occupied government agenda rather thoroughly for several years. In 2008 Sport Canada released a document entitled the "Sport Participation Strategy," a white paper that vowed to increase participation in sport over a four-year span. As we approach 2012 it would be an interesting exercise (pardon the pun) to evaluate the success of some of the objectives outlined in the report. The "Sport Participation Strategy" seeks to: increase levels of participation, enhance the quality of sport programs, and increase awareness and knowledge. Those are mammoth tasks in and of themselves. The paper is practically calling for a societal revolution as essentially, increasing participation in sport must involve changing the mindset of the entire country. Canadians have always harboured a certain apathy towards amateur sport - we know our hockey and to many, that is enough. Neighbouring a nation that worships their "amateur" athletes - Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, and Hope Solo - while providing them with significant financial backing, it would seem that Canada has some distance to cover. In short, awareness of the incredible opportunities in elite sport can be inspiring. Due to new media methods that are now a very dominant part of our culture the amateur sport landscape could be witnessing a turnaround. The most recent "mega event" to take place, the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, is an excellent example of the power of new media. The RWC organizing committee launched a social media campaign that included play-by-play Tweets, Facebook photograph contests, blog posts and a free app that tracked the teams of one’s choice. Social media cannot do the job alone and the 2011 RWC was the first time that international rugby received widespread media attention in Canada. In an exclusive rights agreement, TSN was the sole broadcaster of all RWC games. Partnering with Rugby Canada, they provided advertisements, interviews and sports desk analyses showcasing the Canadian rugby team. In my circle of “non-sport” friends, almost everybody had seen a snippet of the World Cup and more significantly, had caught at least a fleeting glimpse of the Canadian national team. This kind of exposure was unprecedented and came courtesy of a major sports broadcaster giving a lesser-known sport some airtime. The majority of men playing rugby for Canada are amateurs yet they have made a full-time commitment to play for their country and often with little reward or recognition. If the Canadian government proposes to increase participation in sport it needs to come from the ground up. It needs to be an organic process in which we, as a nation, value the athletes that make the choice to practice and train several times a day, every day. Their accomplishments must be highlighted. They are not the ones with multi-million dollar contracts but the ones that put their bodies and their wills to the test for little but the chance that they may one day see themselves on a podium. If Canadian sport is to move forward it must be in partnership with corporations that can provide more funding for amateur athletes. The current Canadian sports model sees federal funding coming from several streams - Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program (AAP), Sport Support Program (SSP) and Hosting Program. A more recent initiative, Own the Podium (OTP), is a union between Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC). Essentially, OTP is an advisory body that decides on where the $70 million in funding from government and non-government sources is allocated. OTP is active in seeking corporate sponsorship yet it is still an imperfect system. Elite sport and participant sport are engaged in a highly symbiotic relationship and now is the time to evaluate the impact of the "Sport Participation Strategy" while eradicating our endemic indifference towards elite athletes in amateur sport."