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Jane Taber

Used as props on occasion, athletes redefine Canada Add to ...

1. Political gain from sporting pain. Olympic gold medalist David Pelletier says politicians use athletes as "props." The government doesn't fund athletes properly, he says, using them for photo ops and then forgetting them once the event is over.

And he remembers how he felt as he stood on the floor of the House of Commons in 2002 as MPs applauded, cheered and honoured him and his partner, Jamie Salé (now his wife), and other Olympians for their efforts in Salt Lake. He felt proud about winning the gold medal in pairs figure skating, he recalled last night, but not about those who were cheering him on.

At a reception for the press at the chic Opus Hotel Vancouver in the city's funky Yaletown, Mr. Pelletier said he went to the House of Commons because "it was the right thing to do." But it angers him that politicians do not take athletes seriously in terms of funding and support.

Mr. Pelletier is in Vancouver for the next few weeks providing figure skating commentary for CTV.

No one can forget the controversy over the gold medal he won with Ms. Sale. The couple was initially awarded the silver but after it was revealed that a judge had cheated on their scores, they were given the gold, which they shared with the Russian couple.

Yesterday, Sports Minister Gary Lunn announced the government would continue funding athletes participating in winter sports to the tune of $11-million a year. This is half of what they had been receiving for the past five years under the Own the Podium program as the Vancouver Olympic committee had contributed a matching $11-million.

Once the Games end, however, so will VANOC's contribution.

While Mr. Pelletier is supportive of secure funding, he is suspicious as to how long it really will continue when the Olympics are over.

The program, he believes, was only begun because Canada was awarded the 2010 Games. He said that had the Olympics gone to another country, such as Korea, the funding program would never have been established.

Games aside, Mr. Pelletier is a strong advocate of sports funding as he believes sports and sports promotion go hand-in-hand with a healthy, fit population.

2. From wimps to winners. To hear Olympic organizers tell it, Canada was a nation of wimps, preferring to have snow rubbed in our faces rather than gold medals placed around our necks.

That's no more, according to John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Committee. There's been an attitudinal shift because we've put some money behind our athletes and coaches as Canada plays host to the world with these Games.

At least that's his read on it and that's one of the things he told reporters yesterday during a press conference leading up to Friday's opening ceremonies.

"We have never been comfortable at getting up on the podium and calling ourselves better than anyone else," Mr. Furlong said. "I think we would like to be but we don't really like saying it.

"I think the country is kind of interested in getting to a place where we're neck-in-neck with the really powerful countries like the United States, Germany and Russia and Norway and Austria."

Canada has never won a gold medal on home soil. Organizers, such as Mr. Furlong, are keeping their fingers crossed that this time it will happen. Indeed, some organizers are looking to downhill skier Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Day 2 of the Olympic Games for Canada's first gold. No pressure on Mr. Osborne-Paradis, though.

Meanwhile, Mr. Furlong's explanation of this new, competitive Canadian is part of a narrative that is being heard increasingly as the Games approach.

In the New York Times magazine last Sunday, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff wrote that the Games will "showcase a new competitive Canada" and that they have altered Canadians' attitudes about competition, arguing that we are now serious about winning medals.

This topic was also broached by Stephen Harper in his interview in Sports Illustrated last week. The Prime Minister spoke about the stereotype of Canadians as peaceful citizens. But just watch us play hockey, he said, and you see that Canadians are tough, aggressive and ambitious.

And this is where Mr. Furlong was going with his comments yesterday, waxing eloquently about how these Games and sport are changing the Canadian psyche.

He characterized the homecoming of athletes with gold medals in their hands from the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002 as "transformational."

"It was just extraordinary how people were feeling about that success," he said. "I think a lot of us realized that it was fun to get out once in a while, to get on the podium and to be seen to be the best."

Hearing people singing the national anthem and being brought to tears as a home-team athlete crossed the finish line first creates a "certain kind of magic," Mr. Furlong said.

Indeed, there is hope among Game organizers that the magic will transform into more funding for athletes.

(Photo: Mr. Pelletier and Ms. Salé celebrate their gold medal with prime minister Jean Chrétien in 2002. Jim Young/Reuters)

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