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.
After Canada’s alpine ski team failed to live up to the hype and came up empty handed in Vancouver, the sport paid a big price.
Funding for alpine skiing dropped from $8.7-million to $3.3-million between the Vancouver and Sochi quadrennials. And while all men’s and women’s alpine disciplines were given equal importance heading into Vancouver (alpine as a whole was classified two), the funding is now more focused, Mr. Read said.
Men’s speed events are classified two, while women’s speed events and men’s and women’s technical events are classified three or less.
“It hurts,” said Mr. Read, a former Olympic alpine ski racer and member of the famed Crazy Canucks.
Canadian rowers won two silver medals in London in men’s and women’s eights, but they were expected to win more – much more. Rowing received $13.9-million in OTP funding for the London quadrennial – more than any other summer sport, and about 14 per cent of the total allocated to summer sports.
Despite that medal shortfall in London, rowing officials don’t believe those funding levels are in peril. Former Olympian Adam Parfitt, now Rowing Canada’s national team co-ordinator, said program officials aren’t scrambling to figure out how to appease OTP officials when they meet in the fall.
“It’s not like we have to razzle-dazzle them,” he said. Rowing officials meet regularly with OTP brass to assess past performances, measure priorities and look at how they might do better.
It’s more like a “partnership” than a student-teacher relationship, Mr. Parfitt said. “I can see maybe some sports might feel like they’re being called to task or whatever, but I think OTP is trying to get away from that.”
ATHLETES WEIGH IN ON CANADA'S GOLDEN FUTURE
Natalie Mastracci: Rowing, silver medalist in women’s eight
Is Own The Podium working?
Own The podium is a huge sponsor for rowing. We’ve had a phenomenal coach that was able to come through and work with us for the past couple of years. The biomechanics and physiology programs have really stepped up in rowing, so for rowing in general it’s great, and in London [Ont.] the program has been a huge help for us. The silver medal is proving that.
Brian Price: Rowing, silver medalist in men’s eight
Is more funding needed for our Canadian athletes?
I think it can always get better. That’s the way I always look at what I’m doing in my sport. I can always improve, even though [I won] a gold medal in ’08, silver medal here, I can still get better. And so I think that's the way we need to look at the way we provide funding for everything. It’s much better than it ever was when I first started, like 13 years ago. But I think we’re going in the right direction. We need to keep that going in the right direction. And, you know, you’re getting some of these young guys pulling out big surprises. The high jump? That was awesome. It’s working, and I think we need to keep working towards it.
Jason Burnett: Trampoline, eighth
What can Canada do to win more medals in 2016?
Canada can always help their developing athletes a little bit more. And it’s not just about funding the top-tier athletes who are bringing home medals. It’s about supporting the kids growing up.
Karen Cockburn: Trampoline, fourth
How did Own The Podium funding help the Canadian trampoline team?
It just gave us access to everything we needed. Any kind of support staff, all the latest technology to keep up with what the rest of the world has access to. It’s hard to compete against that if you don’t have the same support. Since we’ve won medals at every Olympic Games that we’ve been to in trampoline, we’ve been able to keep getting support year after year and that will continue on for Rio.
Do you think sports that don’t win those medals every year find it harder to get funding?
That’s the hard thing, because you need the results to get the funding. Or have the potential to get the results. Because we didn’t have any funding in Sydney, it was a new sport, but we got two medals and from there things started to – and then Athens, more medals. So then it kind of continued to grow from there. But it’s like, how do you get there if you don’t have the support to begin with?
When Canadians get into new sports, they’re equal with the rest of the world because they weren’t putting in the funding either at that time. But then once the rest of the world puts the funding in, if you’re not doing it too, you can’t catch them. So back then when it’s new, you’re on a more even playing field, and I think that’s where that advantage came from. But eventually you need the funding to keep up.
Carmelina Moscato: Women’s soccer, bronze medalist
Do Canadian athletes need more support if we want to boost our medal count?
I think there is support. We needed to win in order to get Canadians backing us as soccer players. It’s been incredible reading the tweets and e-mails, and those people reaching out, it’s just been awesome for our team, and like I said before I’m just really, really excited to be here and I’m happy that you all showed up.
Adam van Koeverden: Canoe/kayak sprint, silver medalist in men’s kayak single 1,000-metres
What does Canada need to do to win more medals?
I’ve got lots of ideas, that’s why I’m on the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission. When we’re looking at the medal tally, it’s important to think back to two years ago in Vancouver, we’re a winter country, we all know, we’ve all shovelled our driveways before. We know this is a cold country and it’s hard to train for summer sporting. I travel six months of the year to find good weather to paddle in and when you look at the duel medal count from two Olympics, we’re extremely competitive for a tiny country in terms of our population.
Christine Sinclair: Women’s soccer, bronze medalist
You say Own The Podium helped the women’s soccer team win bronze. Please explain.
The preparations we had, to live in Vancouver, it’s the best preparation we’ve ever had. … It’s working for us.