Get rid of the Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics should be abandoned. Take away its rings and its eternal flame. It is polluting the concept of Olympics – Sport for All. Only 26 of the 200-something countries in the world got on the medal table.

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The games are so hopelessly skewed to the richer and/or more snowy bits of the world that most countries cannot compete.

Three African countries were able to send representatives to Sochi. That’s not so bad, you may think, til you dig a bit deeper and find they are “representatives” in name only.

Zimbabwe sent 20 year old Luke Steyn, who was coming 59th in the Slalom after his first run, and it only got worse from there, ending in a DNF. He has lived in Switzerland for the last 18 years.

Morocco sent two Alpine skiers, who performed perfectly credibly.

Kenzo Tazi: “When her family moved from London, England to the French Alps in 2007, she was able to begin skiing competitively.” and

Adam Lamhamedi: “I was born in Quebec and I grew up there, and I went through the Skibec alpine system. I’m just like any other kid from Charlesbourg. But I am lucky enough to have a Moroccan father.”

Togo sent a skier who had long competed for France, Mathilde Amivi PetitJean

“In May 2013 she was contacted by the Togolese Skiing Federation via her Facebook page with an offer to compete for the west African nation. “If I was told I would one day compete at the Olympic Games, I would never have believed it would be in the colours of Togo.” 

The second Togo athlete is 18 year old Italian Alessia Afi DiPol. “My father has a factory in Togo that specialises in sports clothes. He has a feeling for the nation, and I have an opportunity to run for Togo, and I am proud of this.”

Yep.

There is not much Africa in the Winter Olympics. A billion people without a medal. Here’s a graph that compares that result with Norway (population 5 million.)

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Norway won 26 medals, coming third on the medal tally, behind the hosts, Russia, with 33, and the US, with 28.

Its Scandinavian comrades were not too far behind. Sweden snagged 15. Finland got five. 

Here’s another way of looking at how narrowly held Winter Olympic glory is. You could go through those four adjacent countries – that won 27 per cent of the total medals – in one day, stopping for petrol maybe once (and getting caught in some Swedish roadworks apparently).

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Now, the Summer Olympics is not fair either. Rich countries win most of the medals. But poor countries at least have a chance. India wins a medal or two. So do Brazil, Iran and Indonesia. And Kenya. Especially Kenya.

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In 2012, There were 86 countries that medalled in the summer Olympics, or as I call them, the real Olympics. All continents were represented. That’s a result worthy of the five Olympic rings.

But, but, but… winter?

No.

Countries are on the equator don’t really get a winter. Winter, snow, ice and the Winter Olympics along with them, are geographically specialised concepts in a way the Summer Olympics isn’t. You can run 100 metres at minus 10 degrees or plus 40.

Not to mention the equipment. I bet you ten dong that people in Vietnam look at skis, snowboards and ice-skates with the sort of skepticism I reserve for bobsleds and skeletons. I just googled and there is nowhere in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, to buy a snowboard. The Winter Olympics are just a fantasy realm of preposterousness for billions of people. 

I feel qualified to say all this because I love winter sports. But I love AFL too, and I’m not campaigning for a special Olympics for sports played inside ovals. I think the Olympics should be about giving as many people as possible a chance.

Sports being excluded from the summer olympics for being insufficiently popular include baseball, with 35 million global participants. They almost cut wrestling out too. Meanwhile, the winter Olympics carries on with Biathlon and four versions of ski racing: Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom and Slalom. 

Amazed? I’ll tell you why we get a winter Olympics despite most of the world’s population living near the equator.  Most of the world’s wealth is located far from the equator.

Is that right?

The Olympics is a special thing. An inclusive thing. The Olympic Charter says:

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

It’s a shame the populations of Africa and South America are excluded from that every four years.

We talked about bad brand extensions the other day. The winter Olympics is one. They drag down what the Olympics are supposed to be all about. 

I bet Norwegians and Canadians are getting all upset round about now. Don’t worry. I do believe you should still be able to put your tuques on for a big winter sports party every four years. But you should not be allowed to call it the Olympics.

How to make athletes pay for their training and still bring home Gold! Gold! Gold!

As Aussie athletes make a name for themselves in Sochi, we can look forward to another four years of seeing their smiley faces shilling for products on our TVs. No athlete steps up onto that podium without making their agent’s phone ring off the hook.

That’s why the idea of a HECS system for athletes is very tempting.

(For the international readers, a quick primer: HECS is a TOTALLY AWESOME student loan system. Zero real interest rates and no need to pay any of it back until you earn above $51,309. Meanwhile Australia’s Institute of Sport spends millions training athletes without seeking any recompense.)

The Australian Sports Commission (which funds the Insitute of Sport) spent $310 million last year, and that’s before counting the various state institutes of sport. (The VIS is boasting today about an athlete that finished 61st in cross country skiing).

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But there are a few very intriguing twists to this tale that will require policy makers to work hard to stick their landing.

Problem 1. Athletes are So Poor.

We have a sample bias. The athletes we see the most are the athletes that earn the most. Thorpey. Cadel. T-Brizzle (Australia’s favourite Mormon!) Clarkey.

BRW tells us our top athletes are earning over $10 million a year. But the best need the rest to make their performances stand out. Their glory is made out of trampling coulda-beens, duds, ones with questionable work ethic, journeymen and hacks. The ones who make no coin.

Solution 1. The way an athletes HECS scheme works needs to be different to the student system. Most people are not going to pay off. But some will pay off in spades.

It’s not a low-risk low return game like training people in nursing or accountancy. It’s a high risk, high return set-up. That means you need to more than fully recover the cost of training from the few big winners. If Clarkey got $30,000 of support from the Cricket Academy, you need to get $300,000 back from him to cover all the guys who also got $30,000 but made a string of ducks and no cash. The debts should be 10 times the investment, and recovered progressively.

Problem 2. Sports skills are just not useful.

If the AIS trains you to be the best white-water canoeist you can be, in the hope of bringing home Olympic gold, and you don’t, but then years later you go on to found an IT consultancy and you invent a really quite terrific database that makes you a lot money, should the AIS be able to ping you for cash?

It hardly seems fair.

Solution 2. If athletic earnings could be kept separate from non-athletic earnings, that would be ideal, but I fear such a system is ripe for being gamed.

ATO: “Pay up, Clarkey.”

Clarkey: “Sorry ATO, no dice. Swisse Vitamins paid me this money because I’m a good-looking Aussie dude, they didn’t even know I played a spot of cricket!”

ATO: *curses*

A simpler idea might just be a time limit on AIS debt so it expires at about the time any sporting career ends. Ten years for gymnasts. 25 years for long-distance runners, or five years after any career-ending injury.

Problem 3. Some sports are cash cows, some are not.

The AIS supported 1233 athletes in the most recent year. This includes weightlifters. Pole vaulters. Badmintoners. These guys could be reigning nine-times world champion and spokesperson for the globe’s top shuttlecock brand and still need to pull shifts driving a forklift at a logistics company to pay their way.

Solution 3. This one is easy. Set the bar for repayment at $50,000 and the earners in these lesser sports will never trouble the threshold.

The Clifton Hill under 12s have as much profile as the Australian badminton team.

The reality is that sport is luxury. These are frivolous games to play and our national pursuit of Olympic “glory” is also a simple distraction.

When taxpayers lay the groundwork for a handful of golfers, cricketers, basketballers and boxers to own homes in Miami and St Tropez, there is a moral issue at stake. Sports training can fund itself using the above principles, and by god it should!

If there are any other clever features such a program should have, or if you think I’m totally wrong, leave a comment below!