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Own The Podium: Soaring Olympic hopes, soft landing

Alexandre Bilodeau was the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal on home soil when he won the men’s moguls in 2010. Canada won 14 golds at those games and while the country is expected to win fewer golds in Sochi, one prediction has Canada winning more medals than in Vancouver.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

She felt an unmistakable snap. She knew immediately, from painful experience, what it was.

Kaya Turski, a slopestyle skier and winner of three consecutive gold medals at X Games, had blown the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. It was early August, during training on the summer snow at Mount Hood in Oregon, and Turski didn't complete the full two rotations of a 720-degree spin. She hit the ground before she was ready. Snap.

In the cold echo, Turski's Olympic dream was apparently dead. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, were exactly six months away. The 25-year-old had blown ACLs before, and she knew the months and months of convalescence. A comeback in time seemed impossible.

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But elite sport in Canada has changed, a legacy of the success at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where an infusion of government and corporate money coupled with ambition produced Canada's best Olympics: 14 golds, the most of any country in the history of the Winter Games.

For Turski, a swirl of cash and medical support coalesced, the type that did not exist a decade ago.

Led by the privately backed B2ten and supported by government money through the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association and Own the Podium, the slopestyle skier is in the midst of an extraordinary recovery.

In fact, after the glow of victory faded in Vancouver and the cheering crowds dissipated, Own the Podium – the program at the centre of the push to victory – redoubled its efforts.

While corporate funding fell off, the federal government poured more money in: Canada has staked a larger pile of cash to reach the podium in Sochi through Own the Podium than in Vancouver.

Counting the rest of the money Ottawa spends on winter athletes and organizations, more than $100-million has gone to the push toward Sochi.

The investment promises to pay big dividends again. Infostrada, a sports-data consultancy in the Netherlands, predicts Canada will be third in medals, the same as Vancouver – but with a total of 34, eight more than 2010, ranking ahead of the United States and behind Norway and Germany.

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Such a result would solidify Canada's position among the very top winter sports countries, even as larger competitors such as the U.S. and Germany spend greater sums for similar outcomes.

There is, however, a worrisome undercurrent Canadians will not see when they watch the Games on television. There are cracks.

Elite-level funding remains robust, but as winter sports groups have failed to attract new dollars from corporations, there is far less money to support younger athletes.

The medal piles of 2010 and 2014 may be a distant memory in 2018, when the Winter Olympics move to Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"At the elite level, we're in the ballpark but at the bottom end – that's the reality," says Ken Read, the former downhill skier who was director of winter sport at Own the Podium from spring of 2010 through last March. "Sochi will be positive. Canadians will be pleased. But if you look deeper, there's reason to be very concerned."

For now, for Canada's best, the money is there. And it has lifted Turski from the vise grip of a season-ending injury. After she went down at Mount Hood, she undertook a novel surgery, involving a synthetic ligament inside a graft of tissues from a cadaver, conducted by Robert Litchfield in London, Ont.

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Turski then relocated to Vancouver from her Montreal home and, backed by a team of therapists at the newly opened Fortius Sport & Health facility, is in a full-time accelerated comeback. The plan is to be back on snow in December, and atop the slopestyle course in the Caucasus Mountains near Sochi in mid-February.

Just getting to that point would be an amazing result for a woman who was one of Canada's top gold-medal favourites before she was injured.

"I'm working with some of the greatest minds in Canada," Turski says. "It's something I'm grateful for every day."

Back the potential winners

The money that finances Canada's Olympic sports system makes for a busy diagram of coloured arrows. On one government PowerPoint slide to illustrate it, 15 arrows are crammed in, flowing from different sources and all pointing towards a centre – athletes.

Own the Podium was inserted into the picture after Vancouver won the job to play host to the 2010 Olympics. The proposal to spend $110-million, split by government and businesses, was put on a boardroom table in downtown Toronto in November of 2004, and Ottawa came up with its money soon after.

Own the Podium brought a cohesive vision to a fractious system of sports bodies – and, most of all, established a new philosophy of making bigger, concentrated bets: Back the potential winners.

"You can't hope," says Anne Merklinger, chief executive officer of Own the Podium. "You need to plan and prepare. The analysis is so critical. … There is a culture in high-performance sport in Canada that is as strong as it ever been, in coaches and athletes. They want to win. They believe they can win."

It is a new era of ambition. A generation ago, when downhill skier Steve Podborski captured bronze at Lake Placid in 1980 – one of only two medals Canada won – there was little support infrastructure. In one small example, funny in retrospect, Podborski almost missed his medal ceremony, jumping off a bus and dashing across a frozen lake to make it, no retinue in sight.

"You had to be really lucky and really good to win a medal back then," says Podborski, Canada's chef de mission for Sochi. "You still have to be really good and really lucky – but you get a lot more help, and it makes a difference."

Own the Podium's job is to direct money to places where it can be best spent, adding oomph to the existing budgets of Canada's different winter sports groups. The money often pays for health services, chiropractors, physiotherapists and psychologists.

It buys equipment. Freestyle skiers received a specialized $20,000 trampoline on which to train for new spins and flips. A custom-made treadmill, costing $200,000, went to cross-country and biathlon athletes, a machine that can accommodate two people, reach speeds of 35 kilometres an hour and an elevation grade of 20 per cent, programmed to mimic different race courses.

Science was another primary thrust, overseen by Own the Podium's director of sport science and medicine Jon Kolb. One project has developed a technique to quickly measure hemoglobin mass – the capacity to carry oxygen in red blood cells – to calibrate training efforts.

Another major focus is sleep. Before Vancouver, sleep research was part of Own the Podium's "top secret" file, and the latest work on rest is also private.

The science labs grapple with the same problem as the whole winter sports system. There's money – but not as much as before. Kolb's team had $2.2-million a year ahead of Vancouver. Now, without corporate cash, he has $1-million a year for both summer and winter research.

"While we've done a reasonable job in the area of sport innovation, many of our competitor countries just have exorbitant budgets," Kolb says. "It's almost impossible to keep up. … So we are limping along."

The question of money from businesses, big or small, isn't easy. Companies have pulled back from the one-time high of an Olympics in Canada. Sports organizations, with small staffs, often struggle to convince sponsors to sign on and to explain why the money is worth spending.

Bell Canada was the biggest corporate backer of the Vancouver Games. Its shifting investments illustrate the challenges for winter sports. The company had previously backed freestyle skiing and speed skating. Those investments are finished and, while it is spending about the same amount of money on national sports organizations as in 2010, Bell money now rolls into basketball, soccer and curling. The company also puts money into the Canadian Olympic Committee and provides about 2,000 summer and winter athletes with cellphones and service plans.

"We all had so much invested in Vancouver," says Loring Phinney, vice-president of corporate marketing at Bell. "There isn't any doubt that Vancouver was a unique anomaly for sport. Every eyeball in our country was watching."

Corporate funding down by half

At the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, Peter Judge is trying to staunch a bleeding budget, and would be in major trouble without Own the Podium money. Sponsor money from Canada Post Corp., Royal Bank of Canada and Bell is gone. What had been more than $1-million a year has plummeted more than 90 per cent to less than $100,000.

What gets hurt is everything below the top level, especially the development of athletes well below national programs. But even near the top, there are difficulties. The association staged a month-long camp earlier this fall in New Zealand, with two coaches, a wax technician, physiotherapist and trainer.

Every need was covered – for the "A group" team. "B" level skiers had to pay part of their own way, and one couldn't attend because of cost.

No one, from government to the sports organizations, has a total tally of corporate money flowing to the sports system, but by one estimate the amount of corporate funding to Winter Olympics sports had fallen by about half – a loss of roughly $10-million – as of 2012.

Judge – who will become Own the Podium's director of winter sport after the Sochi Olympics – has helped put together a new effort to better take on the task of fundraising. A consortium of snow sports – including freestyle skiing, snowboarding, alpine, cross-country and several others – has been formed to offer companies a larger audience, hoping to gain more together than alone.

"We wanted to create something that was significantly different, that had more cachet and reach," Judge says.

Other winter sports are also struggling financially. The Canadian Luge Association has real medal contenders for the first time ever – led by Alex Gough – but has also suffered a big budget blow. Its main corporate backer, Fast Track Capital, had been providing $250,000 a year, but it ran into legal and regulatory trouble and could not fulfill the deal. In October, luge again went in search of a sponsor, launching a "For Sale" campaign.

With all of that, winter sports in Canada is still at a higher level of funding than it's ever been, with greater focus and smarts employed. There are successful efforts to run the business of sport better, too, beyond the centralized bailiwick of Own the Podium and the COC.

At the headquarters of Cross Country Canada in Canmore, Alta., executive director Davin MacIntosh arrived in his chair in 2009 after work in law, real estate and water rights.

As Canada's cross-country skiers look to deliver in Sochi, MacIntosh's work to strength the organization has helped deliver stable corporate funding, leaning on more medium- and small-size donors. Decisions are driven by two goals: helping Cross Country Canada's clients, and building their audience.

"Finding partners and sponsors is not easy and can be demoralizing," MacIntosh says. "But it's [winter sports group] leaders who are accountable for the cracks in the system."

In Montreal, a small group outside the system thrives.

B2ten supports 18 winter athletes, including Kaya Turski, and was created in 2006, after the gold medal won by moguls skier Jennifer Heil. Four years earlier, Heil had finished 1/100th of a point from a bronze medal at the Salt Lake City Games. She and her coach, Dominick Gauthier, knew they did not have all the support they could have had. Gauthier, upset, quit and went to coach Japan's team, but also helped create an ideal plan for Heil. The money, with friend and businessman J.D. Miller in the mix, was raised to fund it.

After Heil's gold, B2ten began and attracted $3-million from private donors to help a select group of athletes above the support they were already receiving ahead of Vancouver. The mission was mostly under the radar, and resented by some others in Canada's sport world. But then B2ten athletes won 12 medals – seven of them gold, half of Canada's golden Games.

The success convinced skeptics. Buoyed by Vancouver, B2ten raised $20-million from 13 sources – the likes of André Desmarais and Stephen Bronfman, heirs to Montreal fortunes – and the focus expanded to summer and winter and the six years leading to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

For Turski, Canadian Freestyle funds were limited. There was some insurance, and funding, but the "optimal" program – to get Turski to the Olympics – was pushed by B2ten. Gauthier says B2ten is only a part of an answer, likening the work to adding spices to existing recipes.

"It's not about us wanting to do everything," Gauthier says. "The system has to change, and it is changing. We're just trying to accelerate the process. I like what we're provoking."

'From zero to everything we wanted'

Behind the scenes of the organizations that fund Winter Olympics sports, there are tensions. The main one is another potential decline in cash, following the drop in corporate money.

At meetings in Ottawa on Oct. 29, and in Calgary on Oct. 30, sports organizations met with Own the Podium and Sport Canada representatives and were told that Own the Podium money could fall as much as 10 per cent in the years ahead. Amid the financial strain, there is also a push by the COC, led by Marcel Aubut, to exert more control and influence.

Several areas of the Canadian sports system are lacking compared with the country's competitors, such as Germany or the U.S.

One, noted by Ken Read, is Canada's relative lack of sports academies at the high-school level, marrying sport and academies. Then, at the university level, there is nothing here like the competitive alpine skiing, hockey and cross-country that is seen in the U.S. college ranks.

Still, even with the challenges, the news as of November, is good. Eight years ago, predicting Canada could challenge for most medals sparked guffaws.

"No one's saying that's preposterous any more," Read says. "In 2005, plenty of people said I was dreaming in Technicolor."

For Rosalind Groenewoud, a favourite to win gold in the new event of women's ski halfpipe, times could not be better. Her predicted medal is one of 10 the Dutch consultancy Infostrada forecasts Canada to win in freestyle skiing, nearly one-third of the country's total.

Groenewoud's sport was added to the Olympics in July of 2011, and from then on the money has flowed to top athletes. At the recent month-long camp in New Zealand, Groenewoud focused on her left-spinning 900 jump in the halfpipe, 21/2 full rotations, a variant of her standard right-spinning 900. Then, after X Games in Aspen in January of 2014, the freestyle team sets up camp in Tignes, France, for several weeks to ready for Sochi.

"It went from zero to everything we wanted," Groenewoud says. "It's pretty incredible the difference right now."

Turski feels the same about her left knee. Her hybrid ACL, the synthetic ligament inside a graft of tissues from a cadaver, feels good. Gauthier recently saw Turski in Vancouver.

"She almost seems more confident and serene than before," Gauthier says.

Should Turski's remarkable recovery advance unabated – if she indeed reaches the podium in Sochi – the story of the many people behind an athlete's success will be truer than ever.

"It's what making this comeback possible," Turski says.

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About the Authors
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More

National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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