An Olympic-sized health problem (Editorial)

After Canada’s Olympic team turned in a weak performance at the Athens Games, International Olympic Committee head Jacques Rogge said the Canadian and British Columbia governments should start forking over some cash for elite athletes to ensure we don’t embarrass ourselves when Vancouver plays host in 2010.

While it’s not surprising Rogge wants taxpayers the world over to shell out for talent for the Olympic road show, a focus on elite athletes makes little sense when public health is suffering from physical inactivity and overindulgence. More gold medals do nothing to produce a healthier population and workforce. About the same time American athletes were winning the overall Olympic medal count, the country’s federal medicare program was declaring obesity a disease, a move heralded as a needed step in response to an obesity epidemic.

Instead of Olympic spending, Canada and the United States are better off investing in school and amateur sports and fitness programs. Sports programs for children are a good place to start. Childhood obesity is a frightening new development. Statistics show one in 10 Canadian children are overweight, a percentage that has tripled since the mid-’80s. And with The International Journal of Obesity reporting that half of Canadian adults today are overweight (and 15 per cent are obese), the health of the next generation of workers should be of big concern for employers.

Obesity is a leading cause of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. That’s a lot of money in health-care costs. It’s a lot of personal tragedy. It’s scores of unproductive and dead employees.

What can government do? On top of spending more on arenas, gyms, playing fields, pools and sports programs, municipal and provincial governments should stop charging user fees for sports facilities. Volunteer-run sports programs and leagues shouldn’t be paying government taxes in the form of user fees. Putting children in organized sports is expensive enough without the government taxing it and disenfranchising poor children from participating.

What can employers do? Business can improve Canada’s bottom line by investing in a healthy population — fitness and dietary programs at work, and donations and sponsorships for community sports leagues.

Health-care costs in North America and elsewhere are skyrocketing. The costs of corporate benefits plans are a crisis in the United States; in Canada HR departments are struggling to control benefit plan costs, while governments work to shore up the public system. Prevention is the best answer to the problem.

Healthy workers are a productivity edge and a cost savings. A celebration of amateur athletics, not professional sports entertainment, is the Olympic ideal the modern Games were founded upon, but that’s been lost since big money took over. The Games, and their focus on advertising, marketing and T.V. contracts, are more a celebration of the virtue of being a couch potato than of healthy competition.

Canada’s people and businesses will benefit most from a focus on creating an activity-minded nation, with youth programs promoting sports and health, and while we’re at it, we’ll build a deeper pool of athletes.

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