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Seeking information on inspiration 

Do fans become athletes after watching the Olympics? Data suggests that sport in Canada is on the decline, but jocks tell a different story.

Between gawping at speed skaters' Robert Crumb-like thighs and using the channel changer as a biathalon rifle during commercial breaks, did you ever say to yourself: hey, after this doughnut, I'm going to start freestyle skiing?

Maybe you're alone in thinking this. No one knows for sure. The question, "does watching the Olympics make us more sporty," is not on the lips of Canadian social scientists because there is virtually no research on this relationship.

"Nobody is collecting data on sport participation because it is extremely expensive to do," says Jamie Ferguson, CEO of Sport Nova Scotia. As a non-profit administrator, he'd rather spend SNS cash getting people active than studying the possible.

"No evidence is not necessarily bad evidence," Ferguson asserts, a statement that doesn't mean much, except it expresses a certain optimism athletes have. They believe in the power of the hero who can inspire collective action.

"If you talk to athletes, they had role models who were Olympians. They watched it on TV and wanted to become an Olympian," says Dr. Carolyn Savoy, a sports psychologist from Dalhousie school of health and human peformance.

Andy MacLean, operations manager at Martock ski hill near Windsor, agrees. He thinks one reason snowboarding is so strong at Martock is because "people have made it here. Because of Sarah Conrad and Trevor Adams, we always had a solid snowboarding scene. This year, half the national women's half-pipe team were snowboarders from Martock."

One would have to say that there is a tenuous, or short-lived, relationship between cheering and getting off our duffs, because sport participation by Canadians is decreasing as Olympics broadcasting breaks records.

A 2008 Statistics Canada report, Sport Participation in Canada, showed a steady drop in the number of active adults, from 45 percent in 1992 to 28 percent in 2005. Even the high school jock has shrunk into a milquetoast with skinnny jeans: Teen athleticism dropped from 77 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 2005.

By comparison, Canadian television set a northern hemispheric record at Salt Lake City in 2002 for the most hours of daily Olympics broadcasts: 41 hours per day across three channels. For Torino in 2006, Canadians averaged 11 hours and 11 minutes of Olympics viewing each.

Once the blanket coverage dries up, it's like watching a gym slowly empty from January to March. Keeping paunchy fans on the ice after the Vancouver glory subsides will be tough.

"Normally, we get a boost from the Olympics." says Neill Evans, head coach of Speed Skating Nova Scotia, "We get very little regular coverage compared to hockey so the Olympics really elevates the profile of the sport. The downside from this is that people come to us at the end of our season, so they are hard to keep."

"If you want people to be active you have to be in front of them all the time," Savoy says. "If you want to sell something you go through the media. If you are saying day in and day out 'sport is good for you' people are going to do it."

That, she says, is where Canada falls short. "The government should be promoting activity. Where is the money being spent? On health care. After the fact. It's locking the barn door after the horse is out. We don't do a good job of promoting a healthy lifestyle."

Young bobsledders are born "on tobogganing hills," says Chris Dornan, spokesperson with the Canadian Bobsled and Skeleton association. "It's the thrill of the crazy carpet that gets people's blood racing."

Or take Murray Wylie, manager of Biathalon Nova Scotia. "I ski poorly and I shoot poorly, but I officiate," he says. "It's a great thrill to watch the competition."

In person. In the cold. Get the idea? Think like an athlete. Forget all the navel gazing research, or lack of it, and just get busy.

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