Adrian Wyld/ CP Photo
Who can pay the price Adam van Koeverden did?
The following is excerpted from Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power And Propaganda, by Helen Lenskyj (State University of New York Press, 2008). Lenskyj is a Toronto scholar and activist.
It has become an almost predictable response for female athletes, and some males, to talk about their role model aspirations after Olympic victories.
Staples of this discourse include the desire to serve as an example for a specific group of children or youth, and the awareness that their behaviour as athletes may influence children who watch them competing.
Very few Olympic athletes who assume the responsibilities of a role model align themselves publicly with progressive social movements such as civil rights, feminism or disability rights. Rather, they tend to reflect the view that their individual experiences alone or in the broader context of the national team are sufficient to qualify them as positive examples for children and youth.
The Canadian media provided an abundance of role model examples around the time of the 2004 and 2006 Olympics. Medal-winning kayaker Adam van Koeverden told reporter Randy Starkman how he derived the greatest enjoyment from showing elementary schoolchildren his medals and telling them how important school is.
Starkman's two articles portrayed van Koeverden as "a fanatic" on the question of training. An athlete who took "no pain, no gain" literally, he told Starkman, "It if doesn't hurt, it doesn't matter, it wasn't worth it."
Cynically, one could argue that Olympic medallists' stated willingness to be role models might appeal to potential sponsors who are looking for a clean-cut, wholesome image. A closer look, however, suggests that most athletes are well intentioned, but perhaps naive.
Many are young adults whose childhood and adolescent years have been dominated by strict training regimens. They did not experience an "average" or "normal" childhood, and its is unrealistic to expect them to deliver a pedagogically sound message without thorough preparation.
Sport organizations, including Olympic bid and organizing committees, capitalize on Olympic athletes' interest in speaking to youth. [For the] upcoming 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, the Canadian Olympic Committee established a program that coordinated [speaking] requests from organizations.
Over 3,300 Olympic athletes and "Olympic hopefuls" were available (for varying fees, paid directly to the athletes) to offer a variety of "corporate services and event appearance opportunities."
With the Olympic monopoly on amateur athlete role models, it is difficult to imagine any alternative. Would it be possible to assemble a group of 3,000-plus recreational athletes across Canada, to coordinate their services through an office in Ottawa?
A recreational athlete's journey from "couch potato" to healthy, happy jogger or swimmer or hockey player is equally worthy of attention and emulation, and offers a more realistic and attainable goal than an Olympic medal.
"Olympic dream" rhetoric has successfully entrenched the notion that the couch potato and the Olympic athlete are on the same continuum, with the former simply needing greater inspiration and aspirations...
The conflict between elitism and universality [in terms of government funding of sport] is unlikely to be resolved as long as "Olympic superpower" status is seen as a key indicator of a nation's worth and a primary source of national pride and identity.