Is funding for Olympic athletes a good use of taxpayer money?

Canadian Mark McMorris celebrates Canada's first medal at the Sochi GamesSince coming into power, the Harper government has spent a record amount of money funding elite athletes.

According to Sport Canada statistics, funding for Winter Olympic sports has more than doubled since the lead-up to the Torino Games in 2006.

And, last Tuesday, the Tories' committed to an ongoing annual contribution of $23 million to amateur sports — mostly to fund the development of medal-potential athletes.

"The main goal [of the funding] is to get more and more Canadians involved in sports and physical activity," Minister of Sport Bal Gosal told Yahoo Canada News in a telephone interview from Sochi last week.

If that's the goal — they're failing.

[ Related: Harper government should be lauded for success in Sochi ]

We are certainly winning more medals — as the past several Olympics illustrate — but sports participation levels are decreasing across the board.

According to research provided to Yahoo by the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto, sport participation rates for Canadians over the age of 15 decreased from 46 per cent in 1992 to 26 per cent in 2010.

The centre's Peter Donnelly says the declining participation is related to decreasing government subsidies and increasing costs of participation.

"It's quite clear that the rich countries win the most medals at any Olympics. And there is certainly good evidence that the more a country spends on preparing high performance athletes, the more medals they win. What we have is what a number of commentators have called a 'global sporting arms race,' where each rich country is attempting to outspend others for the political prestige of winning medals," Donnelly told Yahoo Canada News.

"But you also have to ask if that is a wise way to spend money — do you really want to get into an escalating sporting arms race with much-larger-population wealthy countries such as China, the United States, Germany, Russia? Is such public spending beneficial in any way except to provide a little political prestige for whoever the current government is? Is Canada a better country to live in because our athletes won 26 medals in Vancouver, and because they might win more medals in Sochi? Are there better things that we could be spending money on to improve the lives and health of all Canadians?"

Donnelly adds that if we want an active healthy population, government has to spend more money on things like facilities, coaches and participation subsidies for low-income families.

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Dr. Janice Forsyth, Director of International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University, warns that we shouldn't be too quick to acknowledge a direct link between funding and medals.

In an email exchange with Yahoo, she says there are other factors for our success at Sochi.

"Most of the medals won by Canadians in Sochi come from new events on the program (added for Sochi), or newer sports, which typically don't have as much competition worldwide as the older established sports," she wrote.

"The 'extreme' type sports are a good example. Appropriated from the X-Games, these sports [e.g., snowboarding/freestyle skiing] are usually dominated by North Americans, and will be until the sports catch on elsewhere."

Like Donnelly, Forsyth also doesn't think more money for more medals equates to more participation at the grassroots level.

"All it does is turns us into a nation of couch potatoes," she said.

"Claims that we get inspired and get active by watching these people do their stuff on TV is part of the industry's efforts to sell their sport to us and to justify the intensive focus on a select group of athletes and the resources we're putting towards them."

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There are other reasons to throw money at our Olympic athletes, of course. Some argue that hearing O Canada played, seeing the maple leaf rise while one of our own dons a gold medal brings us together; it unites us.

But is that worth hundreds of millions of dollars through an Olympic cycle?

What do you think? Is funding elite medal-ready athletes a waste of taxpayer money or is it money well spent? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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