A decade ago, various national sport organizations including the Canadian Olympic Committee met to develop a plan that would become known as “Own the Podium” – with the bold goal of helping Canada achieve medal dominance at future Olympic Games. In 2010, Canada earned a record-setting 14 gold medals against twenty-plus countries. This, according to the Own the Podium website, is objective proof that investing in performance equals results. In contrast, Canada’s performance in London was called “disappointing” by media because we “failed” to meet the medal targets.
I have struggled with Own the Podium since it was first introduced. Nobody wants our athletes to succeed more than I do. But I would caution that the single-minded pursuit of medals is a recipe for ultimate failure. Why? Because the goal is both artificial and superficial.
As a former competitive swimmer, I remember watching the great Victor Davis, one of Canada’s most passionate swimmers, compete at a very high level swim meet in the early 1980s. He finished a close second and was criticized at the time for pounding his fist angrily against the starting block because he’d come up short. Victor was known as a fierce competitor, driven by an internal goal that pushed him always to win. In my experience, great performances are born out of an athlete’s personal definition of success, not some artificial goal established by organizing committees. If we define success in narrow metrics – that is, winning a medal – we set our athletes, and our nation, up for failure.
In advance of the 2008 Beijing Games, I donated $50,000 toward the Canadian men’s Olympic swim team to fund their attendance at several pre-Olympic training camps. These camps helped turn a group of individual swimmers into a TEAM – for the express purpose of improving their performance in the various relay swims. Our teams finished in the top-five in every relay – with times that would have earned gold medals in the 2004 Olympics. One of the teams placed fourth while breaking the existing world record. While many were apparently disappointed in these results, I was not, given the depth of talent in Beijing.
How many casualties of sport have we created because someone believed coming in fourth is a fail? By my scorecard, these athletes deserve to be treated far better than “first loser.” Rather than pursuing medals as proof of success, why not encourage and pursue excellence at every level of sport? The pursuit of excellence puts the emphasis on the process: developing a skill or technique; exercising physical discipline; or growing mental focus and toughness. Achieving victories in those self-identified areas of growth allows for the regular celebration of both personal and team victories – growing confidence, and a healthy sense of self-esteem. On the other hand, an unrelenting focus on winning medals can be highly demoralizing, linking personal success to external objectives and factors that are often outside of an athlete’s control.
I genuinely believe that the message we give our young athletes with Own the Podium is fundamentally flawed. Medals should be an outcome of the pursuit excellence, not the entire goal. Ironically, encouraging excellence rather than an arbitrary number of medals may in fact lead to the kind of medal performance Own the Podium is focused on achieving. I understand that Norway, for example, a country with a population one-seventh the size of Canada’s and a cumulative Winter Olympic medal count more that double ours, has achieved medal dominance not by focusing on medals but by dwelling on building excellent individual athletes. By focusing first on excellence rather than medals, our athletes, and our amateur and professional sports teams, have a much stronger foundation on which to find personal victories and long-term strength. Now that’s a recipe for success.
W. Brett Wilson is a Calgary entrepreneur and philanthropist