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The Globe and Mail

Road to Olympic glory should start with physically active children

Grade 7 students take part in strength and core exercises as part of the ACE program at Camilla Road Senior Public School in Mississauga, Ont., April 17, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canadians are justifiably proud of the outstanding efforts that our Olympic athletes put forth in London. Now that the Games are over, it is time to analyze the results and devise a national strategy to improve our nation's performance in the Games to come. Many are casting an envious eye at the gold-medal success of Britain and considering emulating its example.

Over the past decade Britain has steadily increased funding to its elite athletes and spends 30 per cent more per capita on its Olympic program than Canada does. This investment has seemingly paid dividends as, with a population not quite double Canada's, the British earned more than three times as many medals. Emboldened by British success in these Games, Prime Minister David Cameron has called for "a big cultural change, a cultural change in favour of competitive sports."

Canadians, however, should think twice about the British model. We must clarify what we expect as a return on our investment in athletics and ensure that we follow a model that delivers those results. Most Canadians hope that robust Olympic funding will deliver more than gold medals and the transient pride that accompanies them.

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It is well known that the positive effects of physical activity go beyond fitness and include better school performance and improved mental health. We spend millions of dollars on our Olympic program partly in anticipation that Olympic success will inspire young Canadians to become more physically active and thereby improve the health of our population. Unfortunately, dollars spent on Olympic gold do not always enhance the public good.

The United States has dominated the last few Olympics, yet it has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. As Canada's medal count improved over the past 30 years our children and youth became less fit and the rate of childhood obesity more than doubled. Canadians are less active than ever before but sharpening the focus on competitive sport is unlikely to correct this state.

While competitive sport is attractive to some, most children and youth do not excel in these pursuits, thereby hindering their enjoyment and decreasing their participation rates. Experts worldwide are recommending that children and youth receive 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous exercise daily, yet only 7 per cent meet this target. Too much time is spent on electronic media and too little on being active.

Given the chronic underfunding of school-based physical activity programs, it is no surprise that children and youth demonstrate low fitness levels. Britain faces similar challenges as it too provides inadequate funding for physical activity in the public school system. As a result, private-school graduates represent over 30 per cent of British Olympians, but comprise only 7 per cent of the country's students.

Currently our teens graduate into adulthood less physically fit than at any time in our history. Canada needs to systematically ensure that our children and youth learn to love physical activity. Physical activity levels should not depend upon parental income.

Children and youth who prefer non-competitive pursuits should be encouraged to follow this path. Those who excel in sport should have the opportunity and resources to compete with the world's best. The most efficient and equitable way to provide this is for the provinces to supply quality daily physical activity in all schools and combine this with robust federal funding of elite sporting programs.

If we ensured that our children grew up with a love of physical activity, we would improve their health and save health-care dollars down the road. We would also increase the ranks of fit and athletic young Canadians. In doing so we would have more youth entering elite sporting programs and improve the chances of recruiting future medalists. This is the golden future we should strive for.

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