How much is a Medal Worth? - The Intrepid

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How much is a Medal Worth?

This weekend Canada’s medal drought ended, as Carol Huynh won the Gold in Wrestling, Scott Frandsen and David Calder won the Silver in Rowing Pairs, and Tonya Verbeek won the Bronze in Wrestling. Now that Canada has a few medals, all the hand wringing about funding for Canadian athletes, or the lack thereof, will probably subside. While many Canadians want to see a strong performance from Canada, many Canadians, including the current Harper government, aren't interested in paying for it.

Currently, the Canadian government spends about $166 million dollars a year on winter and summer sports. However, a sizable portion of this money has been devoted to Winter Sports as part of the “Own the Podium” initiative to dominate the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Per year, approximately $20-$30 million dollars is spent on developing Olympic athletes. Compared to other countries this is not a lot of money.

Australia spends about $250 million dollars on sports annually and invests a lot more in its summer Olympic athletes. The United States government does not spend any money on its athletes. Corporate sponsors and private donors fund the athletes, as does money left over from the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

While many athletes attest that a medal is priceless, how much does a medal cost? Is Canada currently getting the most bangs for its buck? Though this question cannot be answered definitively, it is possible to draw some conclusions.

The Olympics are a long-term investment. Quick cash influxes do not pay off in the short or long term. To develop a strong Olympic team a country needs to spend money over long-term period. The best example of a country that has had a great deal of success developing a team is Australia. After a poor showing in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Australia developed a long-term program to develop athletes called the “Road to Excellence.” Australia’s increased funding did not start to pay off until 1996, when Australia won 41 medals. Since 1996, Australia has become an Olympic powerhouse. Australia won 58 medals in 2000, and 49 medals in 2004.

Canada’s trajectory has been the opposite. After winning 22 medals in 1996, Canada won only 14 in 2000 and 12 in 2004. The current projection is that Canada will win approximately 12 medals at the games in Beijing. However, Canada’s lackluster performance thus far suggests that this number may be far lower.

Richard H. Field, from the University of Alberta, suggests that compared to other G8 nations Canada is not getting a very high return for its investment. By comparing total population to athletes sent to the 2004 Olympics and the number of medals won Field determines that Canada is sending too many athletes to the Olympics. However, Field does not take the amount spent on Olympic athletes into account in his calculations.

Craig R. Mitton, H. Dele Davies, and Cam R. Donaldson in an article about Australia’s Olympic bottom line conclude that although Australia spent more on its athletes in the 2000 games than Canada, the money to medal ration is similar. For both countries, a medal costs approximately $4 million dollars.

It seems that Canada is getting a reasonable return for its investment, though we are sending a few too many athletes. Though Canada’s recent performance in the 2008 Olympics seems to suggest that Canada may not have hit rock bottom yet, and that this year’s medal performance may be worse than 2004, with worse performances in 2012 and 2016 still to come.

Ultimately, Canadians need to decide whether a strong showing in the Olympics is worth the long-term costs. If Canada wants a world class Olympic team on par with the Australian team or other G8 countries, it will have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

*At this time Canada now has seven medals at the 2008 games.