Olympic medals don’t come cheap.
Placing among the best in the world at a particular event takes specialized training facilities, world-class coaching and state-of-the-art equipment. It all costs money. Lots of it.
Now, after a London Olympic Games where Canadian athletes experienced both unexpected triumph and bitter disappointment, funding decisions that will resonate in 2016 must soon be made. This fall, Canadian Olympic officials will decide how much money each summer sport will be allotted from the Own The Podium program that targets Canada’s best medal hopefuls. The financial judgments will determine budgets over the next four years, known in Olympic parlance as a quadrennial. For many athletes, the funding could represent the difference between just making it to Brazil and a chance at a medal.
For OTP officials, the overarching question is: What athletes and sports should Canada support to get the best bang for its Olympic bucks?
Representatives from each sporting body will present their cases to the OTP, which provided more than $96-million to Summer Games athletes over the last quadrennial. They’ve been told not to expect major increases, but in lobbying for financial support, those coming off a medal performance in London will have a significant advantage over those who didn’t – or, in any case, failed to live up to expectations.
And those who exceeded hopes – such as Canada’s bronze-medal women’s soccer team, considered a medal long-shot – stand on even stronger ground.
“It’s hard to say where this will land, but we’re looking to increase our budgets significantly through this team’s performance and through the enhanced awareness and relevancy of the sport of soccer in our country,” said Peter Montopoli, the general secretary for Soccer Canada, who was on his way to the airport in Toronto to meet members of the women’s team.
Heading to London, OTP took a big chance on the Canadian women’s team, increasing funding to nearly $5.6-million for the 2012 Games from $1.6-million for Beijing. Mr. Montopoli said the money allowed the team to travel to play more matches against international competitors and gave the players access to the best resources.
“There was no stone left unturned from a sports science perspective. Whether it be physiotherapists or massage therapists, but probably more important, psychologists and nutritionists, we’ve done everything we could to be at the highest levels internationally,” he said.
On the other side of the spectrum are Canada’s Olympic triathlon athletes, who, despite high hopes for medals and a big increase in OTP funding – from less than $900,000 for Beijing to $2.4-million for London – posted disappointing results.
Alan Trivett, the executive director of Triathlon Canada, said he will make the case that Paula Findlay will once again have a strong shot at a medal in Rio in 2016, despite her performance in London, and that younger male athletes will be able to take the place of veteran double-Olympic medalist Simon Whitfield.
“It’s a little bit of a sales job to promote our sport and promote the athletes. We’ve found that really being honest and saying what we truly believe has been the best way to go forward,” he said.
Canadian sports are funded by a variety of sources, ranging from OTP to private sponsors and independent initiatives that rely on corporate funding such as B2ten.
But corporate funding can be woefully scarce, especially in non-Olympic years, and most sports rely heavily on OTP, which is financed by the Canadian Olympic Committee and, at arm’s length, the federal government.
And that’s why medals really count.
After every Olympics, OTP executives meet to debrief sports officials and divvy up funding based on a classification system. Sports are classified one (multimedal potential), two (single-medal potential), three (a medal if “all the stars align”) or “unclassified,” explained Ken Read, director of winter sport for Own The Podium.
The classifications, which last four years, are based on performance at the most recent Olympics and a projection of potential medal haul at the next Games and beyond.
In general, the better a sport ranks, the more money it gets. And failure carries a price tag.