Subject: What does health care have to do with the Olympics? Possibly
This is another article by Sara Robinson. It's about why not having universal health care in the US makes us less competitive in the world -- not just in the Olympics, but business too.
What does health care have to do with the Olympics? Possibly everything.
By Sara Robinson
March 2, 2010 - 8:04pm ET
My adopted home town of Vancouver, BC is returning to normal this week. The party's over, the Olympic banners are coming down, and the world is catching its planes for home. But the Canadian flags are still flying everywhere against the late winter skies, thanks to a seriously out-of-character burst of over-the-top Canadian patriotism brought about by the unprecedented performance Canadian athletes turned in at these Games.
There was a lot riding on this. Canada had hosted two previous Olympics (Montreal '76 and Calgary '88) -- and hadn't won a single gold medal at either of them. It's been, frankly, a long-standing point of national humiliation. Skier Alexandre Bilodeau fixed this little oversight by winning gold in the mens' freestyle moguls on Day Two, ensuring that they'll be naming elementary schools for him all over Quebec. And from there, the wins began to rack up quickly. By the time the Canadian men's hockey team closed out the Olympics with their own heart-stopping win over the US on Sunday, Canada had collected 14 gold medals -- more than any other country. (The US had nine.)
Yes, the US and Germany won more medals overall. They're also far more populous countries, with vastly more talent to draw from, while Canada's population is slightly smaller than California's. You have to wonder: how does such a small country get that kind of an edge over these other huge global sports powers?
There were a lot of factors at work, not least of which was a $110-million-plus national investment in training up this particular team to world-class standards. But I can't help but think that Canada's cradle-to-grave single-payer health care may also have had something to do with it.
In high-speed, high-risk sports like these, there's always the looming specter of the bad turn that instantly breaks a bone, rips an ACL, or cracks a skull, putting an end (or least a long delay) to a promising sports career. Those dangers were brought home violently to these Games with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just hours before the opening ceremonies. But it's not news to anyone who hangs around winter sports. I grew up in a small Sierra ski town that had turned out quite a few world-class athletes, and a lot of the adults were varying degrees of walking wounded as a result of their glory years. One of our local icons was Jill Kinmont, a downhiller who went into a race in 1955 as America's best hope for gold in '56, and came out of it as a quadraplegic. There's no doubt, and never has been, that these sports are dangerous. Growing up in the shadow of Mammoth Mountain, seeing Jill around town in her wheelchair was a constant reminder of that.
And even those who make it through to the Olympic podium with their bodies intact -- likely including most of the beautiful, strong young athletes we saw these past two weeks -- will eventually meet middle age with arthritis, surgery scars, and the usual occupational stress injuries that will become permanent souvenirs of their drive to go faster, higher, and stronger than any human has ever gone before.
World-class athletes generally understand these risks going in, and accept them as the price of glory. But Americans need to reckon with the fact that because of the way our health care system works (or, more pointedly, doesn't work), our athletes face far greaters risks and pay a far higher price than their competitors from other countries do.
A Canadian, Norwegian, or German can hop on a pair of skis, fling herself into a bobsled, or push for that quad axle knowing that if he or she cracks up and breaks something, the necessary surgeries and rehab won't bankrupt his or her family -- even if they disable that athlete for life. In their countries, the government takes care of it now -- and will still take care of them when they're 50 and aging into their battle scars. Their job is to push their performance all the way out beyond the edge. Their fellow citizens have already promised to look out for them -- now and forever -- if that ultimate effort pushes them into disaster.
On the other hand, if I were the parent of a talented American kid who was pleading for a shot at becoming the next Bodie Miller or Evan Lysacek or Lindsay Vonn (or, hell, just wanting to play midget league hockey), I'd be thinking three times hard before giving my wholehearted "yes" to that ambition. In the short term, there's the very real possibility that the kid could sustain a garden-variety sports injury -- just goofing around on the ice or on the slopes -- that would cost the family our insurance, and possibly our house. In the long run, that same injury would go into the kid's permanent medical record as a pre-existing condition that would prevent my child from ever having decent insurance as an adult.
Would a prudent parent take that risk? Given the way Americans are already shaping their behavior around the peversions of the health care system, it seems entirely possible -- likely, even -- that this fear may already be keeping our best talent for the 2018 and 2022 Olympics out of the rinks and off the ski slopes.
And it affects the mindset of our current champions as well. For American athletes, that nagging worry in the back of their minds can be just be enough to make them pull their punches, play safe, back off from the risks, stay inside the lines. In sports where the difference between gold and silver (or bronze and nothing) is measured in a few hundredths of a second, even that slight hint of hesitation is the difference between champions and also-rans.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not necessarily saying that Canada's wins were somehow a direct product of their health care system. There's absolutely no data to support that conclusion. But there is already clear evidence that America's inhumane method of health care rationing has already reduced our competitiveness on plenty of other fronts. It's crippled our ability to compete as workers in a global labor market. It's eroded the competitiveness of American businesses. It's gradually stealing away our life expectancy, and creating infant mortality rates that put us dead last in the developed world. In an era of superbugs and global epidemics, it has become a serious security issue that has left us vulnerable to attack.
Over the years, it's also kept millions of us chained to crappy jobs with marginal insurance when we should have been out starting our own businesses, going back to school to upgrade our skills, spending time traveling or raising our families, and doing a thousand other things that would have made America smarter, stronger, and more competitive in the long run. It's caused us to put off seeing doctors for years on end, resulting in entire generations whose health has been sapped by decades of deferred maintenance -- and who are yet still forced to compete with robustly healthy workers around the world who've always gotten whatever care they needed.
Risk is part of our identity as Americans. Our sheer cussed boldness is one of the things we love best about ourselves, and that the world has most admired in us. America has always been the place where you could try and fail and try and fail until you finally tried and succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. And our amazing athletes have always embodied that willing, daring spirit.
But our health care system is making those risks simply too expensive to take on any more. While we're silently doing those mental cost-benefit analyses, fretting about the disasters that await us if we fail, pulling back from the edge and hedging our bets, the folks from a dozen smaller, more progressive countries are speeding ahead of us, full of confidence that they're not risking their futures by going flat-out for the gold-medal performance. When they succeed, they look more American than we do. It's odd. And uncomfortable. And a sign that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong.
One of those things, undeniably, is health care. Universal, affordable health care makes those big risks manageable. It frees up our best people to do their best work, with less concern about the consequences. If we don't offer this to our citizens, we simply cannot continue to compete -- not at the Olympics, or anywhere else -- with all the other countries that do.
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