August 20, 2006

World or Olympic Champion?

King Kaufman, one of my favourite sportswriters, writes about his lack of interest in the ongoing Basketball World Championships:

Because of the alchemy of what we care about, the Olympics are thrilling in a way the exact same competition is not if it's not the Olympics. The difference is the rings. … In the big picture, sports are important. Anything that can draw crowds of 20,000 or 50,000 or even 100,000 on a regular basis and that gets its own section in every newspaper and several TV networks to itself is pretty important. But individual games are only important to the extent that we collectively buy into the fiction that they're important. The fact that so many of us care which of two metal rings a ball goes through more times on a given night is significant. It says something about us as a society. But the actual ball going through the actual hoop is just nonsense. All of the meaning comes from us. We, and by we I mean me, but I don't think I'm off on an island here, don't put much meaning in these international tournaments, except the Olympics.

King is speaking as a sports fan here and trying to explain why certain events draw much more interest than others, even though the sporting competition may be exactly the same. I think he's hit the nail on the head; the truth is, there isn't really any "reason" behind it at all. Certain sporting events are more important because the world pays attention, and the world pays attention because the events are more important. There's not much point in arguing that people "should" pay attention to the world championships the same way that they do the Olympics.

But I don't think King's right when he says that all the meaning comes from us, the fans. For the athletes participating, there is intrinsic meaning in the competition that has nothing to do with the number of fans in the seats or the number of reporters in the press box.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not here to argue that athletes believe that a world championship is just as important as an Olympic championship. For most sports that are in the Olympics, the Olympic championship is the pinnacle of achievement, and of course that has everything to do with the fact that the whole world is paying attention.

But almost nobody pays attention to the World Championships in many of those same sports. So if all the meaning came from the fans, then the world championship would be very nearly meaningless. And to an athlete, of course, it isn't. After all, the Olympic champion is still only the best in the world. Can there be a more meaningful title? One of my experienced teammates used to describe the Olympics as a World Championship held in the middle of a World's Fair; in other words, the most meaningful possible competition, surrounded by a festival of meaningless hyperbole.

Successful amateur athletes derive meaning from sports through their performances, and not through the attention of others. In fact, athletes care a great deal about their performances even when nobody is watching at all. I lived with three of my teammates for four years and every training session had meaning in that household. Some of the most memorable moments of my entire career came during those training sessions! Even a pickup basketball game would be remembered and performances dissected into moments of glory and shame.

That's not to say that athletes don't want recognition for what they do. In Canada this is a very common lament: the Canadian public only pay attention to amateur sports every four years, and the athletes toil in anonymity the rest of the time. The media get their fair share of the blame for this attitude, too. I am all in favour of constructive efforts to increase public awareness of amateur sport — efforts like — but I don't like it when the lack of interest is treated as some kind of moral failure of the Canadian people.

And if the Olympic Games didn't draw the dominant part of the public's attention, what do you think would happen to sports funding in this country? Sport Canada's excellence funding strategy is based entirely on the Olympic Games. In 2004-05 Sport Canada provided more than $51M to national sport organizations (NSOs) for Olympic and Paralympic sports, and is starting to give an increasing fraction of that money to sports that have a good chance of Olympic success. In contrast, non-Olympic NSO's received less than $2.6M (about 1/20th). You can win fistfuls of medals in the Pan American Games, Commonwealth Games, and Jeux de la Francophonie, but if your sport isn't in the Olympics, even the federal government isn't that interested. (It's interesting to think about what this means about the reasons that governments support amateur sport, but that's a topic for another day.) If public interest was more evenly spread out, instead of being so concentrated on the Olympic Games, I suspect that sport funding would also show more balance. And of course that would be to the detriment of the Olympic sport NSOs.

POSTSCRIPT Speaking of constructive efforts to increase awareness, the 2006 ICF World Flatwater Championships just wrapped up in Szeged, Hungary. Lots of Canadian crews did very well (including our K-4 heros), so you will be able to see some highlights next weekend on CBC Sports Saturday.

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