The problem with hanging up targets is people have an annoying tendency to take potshots at them.
Last winter, Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut publicly set an ambitious goal of winning the medal race at the Sochi Winter Games – it was later downgraded to competing for the top spot amid much cringing from the country’s winter sports federations.
Now come the inevitable questions.
As in: Was the $7.2-million that Own the Podium, the high-performance sport funding initiative, poured into Alpine Canada from 2010-14 worth the bronze medal Jan Hudec won in the men’s downhill? Was the $6.9-million allotted to long-track speed skating (two medals, both won by Denny Morrison) well spent? How about the $8.6-million awarded to snowboarding (two medals)?
Evaluating human performance is more than an accounting exercise, and trying to measure success on a strict cost-benefit basis or forecasts met mostly misses the point. Anne Merklinger, the chief executive officer of Own the Podium (OTP), said the best the organization can hope for is to fulfill its mission: identify and support athletes with podium potential, and get them to the Olympic start gate. The result is much harder to control than the process that leads to it.
“We don’t just mail the medals to the people who are top-ranked. It’s why we have the Games,” Merklinger said. “There’s no greater test in sports, but ultimately it’s up to the athletes to perform.”
She also pointed out the disparity between first and sixth in Sochi was much narrower than in past Games and, given the increased competition, “overall, we’re pleased with the performance.”
Although the recent Games provided no shortage of memorable performances – and further evidence that Canada has become a winter sports power – the country’s best didn’t do as well, in objective terms, as they did four years earlier in Vancouver. The total of 25 medals – one fewer than in 2010 – holds up well until you consider the apples-to-apples comparison, which removes the 12 extra events in Sochi. Using just the events held in Vancouver, the medal count declined by nearly 20 per cent.
To critics, Sochi was the most recent example of how OTP, the COC and the country’s national sporting federations (NSOs in the jargon) are seeking answers to the wrong questions. There’s too much emphasis on the top athletes, they say.
And, not enough emphasis on supporting the sports that will attract and create those top athletes.
“If you fetishize medals, the resources will inevitably go to multiple-medal events,” said Peter Donnelly, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies. “I like the fact we’ve always sent full teams to the Olympics, it’s fundamentally part of the sporting tradition in this country … and I loved the old social contract: If you can make the standard, we will pay to send you.”
Donnelly’s objection is less with OTP (although he did say “the first they should do is change the name”) than with the system that made it necessary. “We’ve got to come up with new metrics for success,” he said.
The attention at times like this focuses most brightly on OTP, but it is also a proxy, the pointy end of a much longer stick. Its effectiveness is a function of the overall sports establishment – a patchwork of fiefdoms that are hard to co-ordinate. It doesn’t help that Canada’s amateur sports bodies are not all considered models of strong, limpid corporate governance; although OTP’s financial transparency is exemplary, Donnelly said, “its decision-making is not.”
The COC, which has rapidly expanded its influence and size under Aubut, says it spends half its revenues on athletes but provides little detail on where the money goes (for each of the next four years, $9-million of it will go to OTP; it’s not clear what portion will go to winter sports).
The country’s NSOs typically report to international bodies, many of which are legendarily opaque and nefarious – FIFA, the world body for soccer, is merely the most egregious of them. Add provincial and federal governments into the funding mix, and you have a confusing mess.