This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Little more than a year ago, a phalanx of Finns showed up at Calgary’s Own The Podium office on a fact-finding foray. They wanted to know how the program worked, how Canada got so good at winter sports it hosted the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and won the most gold medals.
Ken Read, OTP’s director of winter sport, talked about building collaboration between levels of government, sports organizations, coaches and athletes. He showed the Finnish sporting delegation how a streamlined approach could lead to targeted success. “Of course, we didn’t show them everything,” said Read. “We kept a few secrets.”
Good thing for that. Taking the success of Vancouver and duplicating it at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is going to be a monumental task for Canada. It’s not just Own The Podium any more; it’s Maintain The Gain. So many rival nations, including Great Britain which hosted a triumphant Summer Games, have either devised their own high-performance program or borrowed from OTP that Canada will be hard-pressed to equal the 14 golds and 26 overall medals it celebrated in 2010.
In the year lead-up to Sochi, OTP and its go-for-the-gusto approach will fund 13 Winter Olympic disciplines to the tune of $20-million. That will make the quadrennial funding for Sochi an estimated $77.7-million. The four-year funding for Vancouver was $69.9-million. And yet, the increase for the 2014 Games comes with a caveat.
Vancouver added one new event (ski cross) to its Winter Olympic agenda; Sochi will have 12, including women’s ski jumping, team relay luge, mixed relay biathlon and men’s and women’s ski half-pipe. With a 15-per-cent increase in events, it means there are more athletes to support, especially when it comes to getting them and their equipment to Sochi for pre-Olympic test events, a non-issue when Canada welcomed its winter rivals to Vancouver/Whistler.
“The overall funding envelope for Sochi is higher and our stated public goal is to contend for No. 1,” said OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger. “We were first in gold and third overall in total medals in Vancouver and we want to be in the same position.” But Merklinger was clear to add: “Several host nations have taken some slips [at the next Olympics] and other nations have copied our approach with OTP and invested more resources. We’re in tough.”
That may seem a little odd if you’ve been keeping tabs on the financial commitments made to Canadian Olympians. The Harper government pledged its continued support for Olympic athletes, both before and the 2012 London Summer Olympics (more than $30-million was provided in 2011-12 through Sport Canada’s Sport Support Program) and after. In November, Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut announced his organization was close to doubling its funding for Olympic sport by paying out $100-million over the next four years.
The COC, everyone agrees, has done a masterful job of raising money, which is good because it has a litany of expenses to cover. That $100-million has to go to preparations and administrative costs for both Sochi and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Then there is the 2015 Pan-American Games slated for Toronto, which recently drew a one-time COC injection of $2.6-million for helping outfit and service Canada’s team. Added to that, the COC has to make good on its four-year, $32-million commitment to OTP and Sochi.
And with its money, OTP is also keen to invest in athletes for the 2018 Winter Games, a decision that Merklinger calls “a strategic shift. We need to increase the athlete pool. We need to be investing a little deeper, not in all the sports but in the ones that have a chance to win multiple medals.”
Ironically, with all this money floating around, there are national sports organizations struggling to get by like never before. Some of that has to do with how the government and COC dollars are used. As Walter Corey, the high-performance director for the Canadian Luge Association, pointed out: “A lot of that money is targeted into specific line items such as extra coaches, hiring a nutritionist, things like that. Sponsorship dollars are more flexible and allow us to address a gap in our program, which is developing junior athletes for the Olympic team.”
Most sports negotiated a sponsorship deal that ran past the 2010 Olympics, even if only for a year. But post-Vancouver, bobsleigh and freestyle skiing lost their title sponsors – big names like Visa and Canada Post – and have not been able to win one back. Bobsleigh and skeleton went so far as to produce an on-line video outlining what they have to offer – excitement, performance, loved by the media – all in the hopes of regaining a financial partnership.
“We are one of the many who lost their major sponsor. It was about 15 to 18 per cent of our budget,” confirmed Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton CEO Don Wilson, who noted how pricey the coming year will be for his program.
“We have to get our sleds from St. Moritz [Switzerland] to Sochi. In a regular year, we have eight sleds and it costs $10,000 each to move them from Canada to Europe. It’ll probably take another $6,000 [each] to get them into Russia.”
OTP funding is supposed to be the financial boost that pushes athletes to the top. It’s not meant to be core funding. Some believe the federal government could further assist the athletes by doing a better job of marketing them for a greater good. “The feds should use our athletes as role models to emphasize public fitness,” said former Olympic rower and University of Western Ontario associate professor Angela Schneider. “That would generate more attention.” It could also tap new revenue streams.
“The sports having challenges had a long-standing sponsor and these things do have a life,” said Read. “OTP funding is performance focused and has been maintained to provide some stability and planning. The crux of the challenge of having a home Games is it creates an environment. There was so much success that we thought it would translate into [post-Olympic] sponsorship. But there’s also Games fatigue. It’s to be expected a number of corporations would say, ‘We did our part.’ ”
There are still athletes primed to do their part even if their sport is feeling the pinch. Women’s bobsleigh has World Cup sensation Kaillie Humphries, skeleton has defending Olympic champion Jon Montgomery while alpine skiing has its Cowboys, Manny Osborne-Paradis, Jan Hudec, Erik Guay and John Kucera. Those athletes, and their Paralympic counterparts, are benefiting the most from OTP, whose funding and direction has moved Canada to a place where having a winning mentality matters.
“That’s probably the biggest legacy from Vancouver,” said Merklinger. “Our job is to make sure the top athletes have the resources to compete and we’re already investing in the next generation. That’s an important approach for building podium excellence.”
OTP can always do better. Sporting insiders say there should be more sharing of technical data and expertise within the various Olympic sports in Canada; that OTP needs to be less secretive, at least internally. As for what happens in Sochi, there are no guarantees. Rival winter nations have noted Canada’s success. The question is: can we maintain it, and for how long?