07/30/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Health, confidence, world image make medals matter, say Canada's Olympians

LONDON - It was a moment that could send a chill down every spine in Canada's high-performance sports community.

Earlier this year, a volunteer at the Canadian men's curling championship expressed some doubt about whether the government should be supporting the country's athletes.

"They want to give the curlers money and they want to take away my OAS," he mused aloud, referring to Old Age Security cheques that currently kick in for Canadians at 65, but will be pushed to 67 in the next decade.

Taxpayers are the main financial supporter of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The federal government spends about $200 million a year on sport, according to Canada's sport minister Bal Gosal.

About $64 million was funnelled to elite athletes this year via Own The Podium, which oversees the competitive aspects of their lives between Games. The athletes also receive direct financial support, or what used to be called "carding money", from Sport Canada. The bill for that comes to almost $27 million this year.

Money also goes towards developing coaches and the cost of hosting both national and international sport events in Canada.

Canadian sport is still basking in the glow of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The host country led the gold-medal count with 14 and won 26 overall to finish third. Few grumbled about money spent after Canada's medal haul.

Sport avoided cuts in this year's federal budget, while the public service shrunk and CBC saw its funding drastically reduced.

"When you look at our Canadian athletes, they are an enormous source of pride for all Canadians," Gosal said Monday in London. "They are exceptional role models for our children and youth. It's very important. We saw that in the Vancouver Olympics how sports brings the community together.

"We are very committed to sports and recreation activities for all Canadians of all ages."

But how long will Canada's goodwill towards sport last in the face of economic uncertainty? At what point does the taxpayer ask "What's in it for me if Canadians win medals at the Olympics?"

The Canadian Olympic Committee's president doesn't think that question will be asked during the London Games. He believes Canadians are engaged in their team's performance here.

"I would be surprised if there were many Canadians who asked that question to themselves because they are going to love what they see on television, especially after Vancouver, which rallied our country like never before," Marcel Aubut said. "We were all behind one goal, winning at the Vancouver Games. That created momentum for the country."

Medals in London will be harder to win. Canada's goal is a top-12 finish in the overall medal standings and the team won its first Sunday, a bronze in women's diving. A strong performance by the team in London keeps their countrymen feeling benevolent towards sport.

"It's really important we don't lose momentum in terms of the impact of the additional financial funding in summer sport, Olympic and Paralympic," said Own The Podium chief Anne Merklinger.

Sprint swimmer Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C., hopes those watching at home know they have a stake in every medal earned.

"When you win a medal, that should be hitting the homes and hearts of every single Canadian because we didn't get here on our own," he said. "Taxpayers, through the funding and stuff, they've helped us."

For teammate Ryan Cochrane, a medal favourite in the 1,500-metre freestyle, it's about health and reducing obesity.

"These medals really mean more kids active, more kids that can find a sport they really believe in," he said. "People winning medals shows we're great athletic Canadians."

A former competitive curler herself, Merklinger expects Canadian medals won in London to impact that volunteer's life. Medals trigger investment that trickles down to community facilities and recreational programs, she pointed out.

"What does it mean to that guy? It might mean something to his grandkids," she said. "It might mean something to the neighbours in the community in which he lives. It might mean something to the quality of the programs delivered into his community in terms of valuing a healthy lifestyle and physical activity.

"We need to draw that link to why medals matter. I believe it's important because it does build community. It does develop our civic pride. It does increase our confidence as Canadians. It does provide role models for the 850-odd kids at swim trials trying to make the Olympic team."

Canadian chef de mission Mark Tewksbury won gold in backstroke in 1992. He agrees with Cochrane that medals inspire people, particularly children, to try a sport.

"You can't put a dollar value on how many young eight to 10 year olds start in sport and then of course, it starts to ripple (with) healthier Canadians, who are engaged in society and part of community and on it goes," he said.

The Olympic Games are a stage where countries market themselves. Vancouver swimmer Blake Worsley believes Canada's team at the Games reflects to the world the country's values and who we are as a people.

"It's a statement that Canada allows us to be here and follow our own dreams," the Vancouver swimmer said. "You could say we advertise Canada to the world."

The funding of Olympians and Paralympians has moved away from an everybody-should-get-some approach to money targeted towards sports that can produce Olympic and Paralympic medals.

Beach volleyball player Marie-Andree Lessard of Lasalle, Que., is OK with that philosophy, but hopes performances that don't yield medals in London are also valued at home.

"For us, if we make it out of our pool, we'll have accomplished our goal," Lessard said. "I think it's great that as a country we've put a focus on medals and we've put money behind it to make sure that we get the most medals. But I don't think each and every athlete that comes should be expected to win a medal.

"There are 200 teams on the (beach volleyball) World Tour that are competing to be at the Olympics and that are competing to win a medal. There's only three medals. I think sometimes media also have a responsibility in this to put the context behind the team's performance, past performance and to know when a performance is great."