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.
“Success in high performance requires that intention and behaviours are aligned. We can’t achieve our full potential until we decide as a country what sports are important and how we will define success,” said J.D. Miller, one of the co-founders of the privately funded B2Ten group, which supports high-level athletes, including two-time Olympic moguls champion Alex Bilodeau.
Over the past four years, OTP spent roughly $81-million – about 10 per cent more than the previous quadrennial – and while revenues are guaranteed through the 2018 Games in South Korea, medals aren’t. Asked about the state of Canada’s talent pool, Merklinger said “it’s been very static. Our initial assessment is that pool has not increased based on our performance in Sochi.”
That reality, in the view of some experts, makes the amount of money spent and the places it is directed less important than the answers to some basic questions.
What sports do we care most about, and how should we be funding them?
In such places as Norway and the United Kingdom, Donnelly said, the primary funding is the national lottery (Aubut has hinted that’s an avenue the COC is interested in), and there is a far more seamless transition between recreational and elite-level sports.
“We’ve segregated the sports system so much by separating participation from high-performance … any money that’s available, they will suck up,” Donnelly said.
What are we trying to achieve? Who should Canada be competing against?
“That’s a good question,” Merklinger said, pausing before identifying Germany and the United States.
In winter sports, there’s a correlation between medal success and Gross Domestic Product per capita. The countries in Canada’s immediate neighbourhood in terms of GDP per capita include Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Austria (Norway’s is far higher, greater even than the United States.)
Some voices have suggested Canada should mimic the single-mindedness of the Dutch, who have focused on dominating the speed-skating oval like few countries ever have. It’s easier said than done: Speed skating is the Netherlands’ defining pursuit, in the way cross-country skiing is intimately tied to what it means to be Norwegian. It happens that speed skating and Nordic events – cross-country, biathlon, ski jumping – yield 117 of the 230 medals at the Winter Olympics.
Which sports should Canada choose? Curling and hockey matter, but comprise four medals.
“If there was to be a dramatic shift, it would have to be a collaborative effort involving all our funding partners.… I don’t sense a big appetite for it,” Merklinger said.
It’s also worth remembering OTP doesn’t retrospectively punish poor performances or reward good ones.
Besides, sometimes events intervene. Who could have predicted that super-combined skier Marie-Michèle Gagnon would dislocate her shoulder in her first run? There is an inherent randomness to competition as well: Short-track speed skater Charles Hamelin almost never falls, but he did in Sochi, twice. It’s also difficult to judge whether an athlete is a wise investment when the difference between a fourth-place finish in luge, say, and a medal is a minuscule fraction of time.
That’s not to say sports that don’t deliver results will continue to reap the same level of funding.
Some sports that didn’t meet expectations – and don’t have a supply of development prospects – will see their funding cut. It’s too early to say exactly which ones, and by how much, but executives in such sports as alpine skiing and speed skating expect reductions.
To that end, OTP will shortly undertake a strategic shift for its winter program – which as of March 1 will be led by Peter Judge, who oversaw a Freestyle Canada team that won nine medals in Sochi – that mirrors the plan for summer sports after the 2012 London Olympics. That’s to say a narrower focus on the number of sports, while increasng the amounts that those sports receive.
Whereas the winter programs in 2010 and 2014 were about the here and now – many of the competitors who had success in Vancouver were able to replicate it in Sochi – preparing for the 2018 and 2022 Games will be about spotting athletes who are five to eight years from contending.
“We can’t do that with every sport, we don’t have the financial capacity, so we’re going to have to make some hard decisions,” Merklinger said.
For some it will mean doing more with significantly less means; for others, it means only a slight shift in priorities.
Alpine Canada’s women’s team, for example, has already reoriented its efforts away from speed events toward technical disciplines – Gagnon, 24, finished ninth in the slalom in Sochi, and 23-year-old Erin Mielzynski broke a 40-year-old World Cup gold medal drought in 2012.
The snowboard team, which took home only two of the five medals it was expecting to win, has some of the world’s best young talent (slopestyle bronze medalist Mark McMorris is 20, teammates Maxence Parrot and Sebastien Toutant are 19 and 21 respectively).
Not every sport boasts such depth, and there are consequences to the hard decisions Merklinger alluded to: NSOs that see funding for elite programs cut will necessarily have less money to go around for development and the grassroots. The enterprise isn’t without risk, as one veteran amateur sport official put it: “That approach is only going to get you a smaller cohort.”
Former OTP winter program head Ken Read recently emphasized the need to address the gaps in the so-called “podium pathway” – in other words, creating the more seamless transition between recreational and elite sports that Donnelly and others advocate. Only then will Canada be able to count on a steady stream of new talent for its national teams.
“It’s not too late,” he said in a recent interview. “But we don’t have a lot of time to waste.”