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Olympic torch comes to Parliament Hill, along with plea for funding boost

Canada's elite amateur athlete community came looking for a sweetheart deal on Parliament Hill.

OTTAWA - Canada's elite amateur athlete community came looking for a sweetheart deal on Parliament Hill.

And who better to light a fire under tight-fisted parliamentarians than "Canada's Sweetheart," 1948 Olympic gold-medal-winning figure skater Barbara Ann Scott?

The 89-pound octogenarian carried the blazing Olympic torch into the House of Commons in a special ceremony Thursday afternoon that temporarily united warring political partisans while simultaneously bumping the torch relay off its scheduled route in Montreal.

"I can't tell you what a thrill this has been," Scott twinkled after receiving a hero's welcome from MPs and senators.

"Imagine, an 81-year-old gal being invited to carry the torch into the Parliament Buildings. ... Thank you, thank you."

The Olympic torch relay doesn't officially reach the national capital until Saturday. Scott, an Ottawa native and still the only Canadian woman ever to win Olympic gold in singles figures skating, will carry the torch again through the city's western suburbs on Sunday morning.

However, with the Canadian Olympic Committee and others on Parliament Hill on Thursday lobbying federal officials for more elite-athlete funding - and with the House of Commons set to rise Friday for the Christmas break - the opportunity for Ottawa's highest-profile lobbying stunt of 2009 was too good to pass up.

The pitch?

Olympic and paralympic officials, national sport federations and a group representing elite amateur athletes came seeking an annual $22-million increase in federal funding for the Own The Podium program.

The five-year-old program, which already receives $55 million a year in federal funding and recently received an extra $11-million taxpayer injection, is designed to help push Canada's elite winter athletes to the very top of world rankings. International results and prospects for an unprecedented medal haul at the Games in Vancouver and Whistler in February suggest that it's working.

"Nothing unites Canadians more than our collective celebration of success on the world athletic stage," Alex Baumann, the former Olympic gold medal swimmer and chief technical officer of Own The Podium, said in a news release.

"Our challenge will be to sustain the momentum after 2010 as we propel forward into the ranks as one of the top sporting nations."

Corporate sponsorships and provincial government contributions are set to dry up in March after the Winter Games, says the group's news release.

So they're seeking a 40 per cent increase in federal funding for Own The Podium in the 2010-11 Conservative budget to make up for the shortfall.

Coming at a time when Ottawa has suddenly returned to record deficits and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is under pressure to stem the bleeding, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the athletic organizations need all the lobbying help they can get.

Scott, still a consummate performer, delivered.

Ram-rod straight and pixie cute in a tiny white Olympic uniform, she carried the torch through the Gothic, Christmas-garlanded hallways of Parliament and onto the crowded Commons floor to roars of approval.

"It was pretty dramatic to see it being carried into the House," said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the man with his fingers on Ottawa's purse strings.

"I was worried about the flame near the door there because there's a lot of wood there. You could have burned the House down."

Flaherty was to meet the Olympic lobbyists later in the afternoon, and he wasn't tipping his hand.

Scott was left with the last word.

"If you're an athlete or an Olympic fan, this is the greatest honour anyone could have," she said of the torch run.

"It's the symbol of the Olympics and all athletes would die to have this."

As for the prospect of more gold medallists joining her in Canada's lonely Olympic pantheon after the February Games, Scott was effusive.

"Oh, I hope so, I hope so, yes. I hope we'll have quite a few."

 
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