Feature

The Wrong Track

A Canadian medallist on why our Olympic strategy betrays the spirit of the Games

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

He first stood out to me in a row of shirtless boys in a black-and-white photograph taken in the early 1980s in what was then East Germany. All arms and legs, they were of different heights, lined up against a mark someone had painted on the wall. One hatchet-faced boy fell well short of it. At that moment, he became my hero. Andreas Dittmer, who went on to become a five-time Olympic medallist, was, arguably, also the best sprint canoeist ever.

Dittmer, known as “Stifti” (a German nickname for “skinny”) because he grew to be taller and slimmer than most sprint canoeists, was one of the best technicians the sport has ever seen. I lost to him in every race for about four years, only beating him twice in the twilight of his career. When most of us were trying to convince our bodies not to shut down with pain, Dittmer would, with a few snappy strokes, gain a boat length or two and win with seeming ease.

He retired after Beijing in 2008. Because he was a friend to many Canadian paddlers, we invited him to our spring training camp in Florida to tell us some of his secrets. We discovered that there were none. His achievements were the result of hard work and of an intangible quality that allowed him to flourish under a punishing training regimen.

Most countries that compete at the Olympics employ some sort of economic and logistical system to manage recreational and competitive sport. The nation that backed Dittmer still has one of the world’s best. Germany’s promotion of sport science, training centres, and technology made us feel primitive in comparison: our own system was far less centralized and science based. Dittmer wasn’t a success only because he was born with natural talent and drive; he had the best framework to help him perfect the intricacies of the sprint canoe stroke, which, because of the required balance, rotation, and millisecond timing, is as complicated a movement as any you will find in sport.

When most Canadians watch the Olympics, this is the kind of narrative they crave: a passionately motivated athlete overcomes adversity and attains glory on behalf of this country—a country that, in turn, supplies them with the support they need to perfect their métier. I like to think that I embodied a version of this narrative myself back at the 2008 Olympics, when I won a bronze medal for Canada in sprint canoe. Like a young Dittmer, I was far from a perfect physical specimen, and coaches originally doubted my potential because of my lack of size and power. But thanks to the support I received from them and my family and more than ten years’ worth of two or three training sessions a day, I took my place on the Olympic podium.

Today I ask myself, if I had entered my sport in the current era of Canadian Olympic funding, would I have earned that bronze? Since the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, this country’s athletes have won an unprecedented number of medals. But the system that I came up in is not the same one that young athletes know today, thanks to Own the Podium (OTP)—a program conceived to improve and professionalize our approach to Olympic competition. It has indeed resulted in more medals, but the price we have paid for this bounty has been steep: not all athletes, and not all sports, are benefiting. OTP is a short-term funding strategy that gives low priority to any sport, or athlete, unlikely to yield a dividend of gold, silver, or bronze on the country’s “investment.” That approach is antithetical to Canadian values and to the spirit of sport. It also works against the initiative’s own goals. Going into this summer’s Rio Olympics, my thoughts have turned to what the future may hold—for the generations of Olympians to come and for the country that is watching.

OTP was created, in part, to help save national pride. In the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canada held the distinction of being the only country not to have won a single gold medal while hosting an Olympics—not once, but twice (Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988). The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), under the leadership of John Furlong, wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be embarrassed again.

In early 2004, the major players in the Canadian sport system—including Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), and VANOC— met to talk about how Canada could top the medal table in Vancouver. They set a goal of winning thirty-five medals at the Games—a number that, they predicted, would put Canada atop the rankings. (By comparison, Canada won seventeen medals at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, a result that put us in fourth place behind Germany, the United States, and Norway.)

Leading the effort was Cathy Priestner-Allinger, who took silver at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, Austria—the first Canadian to have won a speed-skating medal in twenty-four years. Now a sixty-year-old veteran of the international sport strategizing circuit, she examined everything within the Canadian system, from coaching expertise to sport medicine and administration. Priestner-Allinger found a system in disarray: “No one was really working together,” she says. The following year, her team produced a report, Own the Podium—2010, which has come to define the Canadian sport system. The twenty-eight-page report identified two ways to boost Canada’s Olympic medal count: increase the number of high-level athletes, and increase the odds that their athletic potential could be converted into medals.

The Vancouver Games were five-and-a-half years away, far short of the eight to twelve years it normally takes an athlete to develop Olympic medal potential. So a big part of her strategy involved targeting athletes already winning medals, and giving them the very best in sport science, coaching, and technology. She also recommended recruiting existing stars from complementary summer sports: speed skating would take cyclists and in-line skaters; freestyle skiing would look to gymnasts; bobsleigh would recruit football players and track sprinters.

More generally, the report called for groups such as Sport Canada, the COC, and the Canadian Paralympic Committee—the major funders of high-performance sport, which includes the Olympics and other competitions that keep us glued to our TVs—to pool their budgets under the OTP umbrella, which would focus “excellence” funding in a way that ruthlessly promoted medal winnability.

The federal government approved the plan and by 2010 had more than doubled Canada’s sport investment to $160 million, approximately $65 million of which was directed by OTP. The sports that got the new money weren’t necessarily ones that we think of as being prototypically Canadian, or ones that have the most participants. Of the ten sports with the highest number of participants—including hockey, soccer, baseball, volleyball, alpine skiing, cycling, swimming, and badminton—only women’s hockey, men’s and women’s swimming, cycling, and alpine skiing would be significantly funded. This sea change in government sport policy attracted little attention from the broader public at the time: most Canadians don’t pay much attention to the Olympics when the Games aren’t actually being played. But within sport circles, the effect was revolutionary.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

Before OTP, about 60 percent of a sport’s funding was based on performance, while the rest was based on criteria such as membership numbers, how many provinces competed in the sport, and coaching programs. In effect, decisions were made according to how well an organization was run and how much of an impact it had on Canadians. The traditional goals of encouraging participation—through the development of national athletic associations or by getting kids and adults active in sport, for example—had now been eclipsed by a cost-benefit approach that sought to squeeze the highest number of medals out of the available budget dollars.

OTP is now a well-established presence within Canadian sport. Staffed by advisors and analysts working out of a modest one-storey office building on an industrial strip in Ottawa, it briefs Sport Canada on how to spend the latter’s chunk of the now roughly $200 million the federal government commits to sport each year.

Most of that money flows to national organizations, the groups tasked with running sport in Canada. Canada Soccer, for example, isn’t responsible only for the likes of star forward Christine Sinclair; it also sets the general guidelines that govern little-league games, and everything in between. Since the establishment of OTP, sport funding has been divided into “core funding”—the model that existed pre-2004—and “excellence funding,” the amount that OTP influences.

All high-performance sports still go through the pre-OTP process for core funding, which underwrites staffing and some development programs. But the amount available hasn’t changed in more than a decade. The new OTP funding, meanwhile, is divided into three tiers. A sport with low medal-earning potential, such as ski jumping, might get $50,000—while a discipline with higher medal potential, such as track and field (formally known as athletics), may get $13 million. Moreover, this money comes with strings: OTP monitors how the money is spent within each sport. If OTP advisors believe funds are being squandered on athletes or projects that won’t generate medals, the funding gets cut.

Many athletes’ careers reflect natural dips and curves—the results of delayed physical maturity, moving up to a different age group, or getting sick or injured at the wrong time. In my early twenties, my performance plateaued, and I wrestled with whether or not to continue. At these junctures, the existence of funding can be crucial. If, during this lull, I had suddenly been forced to pay for two months a year in Europe, four months of training camp, and my coach’s salary, I would have had to quit.

The success of the Vancouver Olympics was enough to temporarily silence OTP critics. In the total medal count, Canada came third, trailing the United States and Germany. Our fourteen gold medals put us ahead of every other country. A poll conducted after Vancouver found that 95 percent of Canadians were happy with their country’s 2010 performance.

Canadian athletes, flushed with the successes of Beijing and Vancouver, and backed by a plan that seemed to be working, marched confidently into the 2012 Summer Games in London. The result? “We did okay,” Merklinger tells me. “Our goal was to finish top twelve in total medals, and we ended up tied for thirteenth.”

It’s true that Canadian Olympians traditionally don’t come out with as many medals at Summer Games. But the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi also represented a comedown from Vancouver: Canada came in fourth in total medals, and third in golds. Around this time, an OTP review of Canadian athletes found that for the first time since the mid-1990s, the number of athletes finishing in the top five and top eight at the Olympics—positions that indicate future medal potential—was in decline.

By the time Sochi came around in 2014, Canada had been fixating on converting athletic potential into gold in a select number of sports—and only at the highest level of athletic potential within those sports—for about a decade. Now, as elite athletes aged out of the system, the lack of investment in the development of a broad range of candidates from the next generation was beginning to show. “OTP was not initially meant to be sustainable for the whole system,” says Priestner-Allinger, who went on to consult with the Russians in 2014. “It was only focused on 2010 medals.”

The sport that best demonstrates the system’s strengths and weaknesses may be speed skating, which received one of the highest OTP funding amounts from 2006 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2014. It also boasts one of Canada’s most respected professional athletes, Clara Hughes. With six Olympic medals, she is tied with Cindy Klassen as Canada’s most decorated Olympian. Hughes is also one of only five athletes to have won medals (in her case, for cycling and speed skating) at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

“I only did community sport growing up,” Hughes says from her home in Canmore, Alberta. “I had trouble as an adolescent with dysfunction and delinquency. But when I saw Gaétan Boucher at the Olympics in ’88, I decided I was going to speed skate for Canada at the Olympics one day.”

Hughes won medals in cycling at the 1996 Summer Games before switching to speed skating after the 2000 Olympics. At the 2002 Games, she was part of a speed-skating team that accounted for more than half of Canada’s total medals. That success is part of the reason speed skating became one of Own the Podium’s early darlings.

At the Turin Games in 2006, two years into the OTP program, Speed Skating Canada saw the team’s best-ever Olympic performance, and Hughes became an Olympic champion. She was a favourite for Vancouver, and Canada’s speed skaters were now predicted to win more than half of the twenty speed-skating events in 2010.

But despite the millions of dollars in OTP funding spent in the lead-up to Vancouver on equipment such as a skating treadmill and altitude tents—as well as perks meant to make training easier, such as apartment rentals near the Vancouver Olympic oval—the speed-skating team failed to match its 2006 performance. At Sochi, four years after Vancouver and ten years after the introduction of OTP, speed skating had its worst Olympic performance since 1994, coming away with just five medals—a performance so lacklustre that OTP cut Speed Skating’s budget by $517,000.

Speed skating now finds itself in the position of having to earn its way back into full OTP funding by proving its commitment to winning Olympic medals. Administrators have trimmed funding for Olympic-level athletes and coaches who weren’t believed to be essential for winning medals, and, more importantly, have shuffled money away from development projects to high-performance. “We had to scale back on a lot of our other programming for a couple of years,” says Ian Moss, CEO of Speed Skating Canada.

Among the major programs it scaled back was one that helped local clubs buy the pads that go around the edges of skating ovals. Padding provides essential protection for athletes who, dressed in thin spandex, zip along at fifty kilometres an hour with razors strapped to their feet—but it’s also very expensive.

Moss says that short-term cuts are inevitable. Once funding increases again, the organization will be able to shift some money back into development. “Two years later, we just had our best season in fifteen years in both short and long track. We’ve got six world champions, twenty-four world championship medals, and seventy-four podium performances at world cups this year. And we’re doing it on a lot less money.”

The work of calculating the amount of money that goes into a single Olympic medal win is a bit crude, but some rough arithmetic is possible. Canadian media were quick to price Jan Hudec’s bronze medal in downhill skiing, the first since 1994, at $7 million—the total amount OTP spent on Alpine Canada from 2010 to 2014. (Hudec, who has suffered a series of knee injuries but now says he is healthy, will be eligible to ski for the Czech Republic in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, because Ski Canada wouldn’t cover the reported $35,000 cost of having a ski technician support him during this year’s World Cup season.) My own Olympic medal, one of two won by Canoe Kayak Canada in Beijing, could be “priced” at slightly more than $2.5 million using a similar analysis.

Speed Skating Canada is lucky, relatively speaking: its history of medal winning—and the sheer number of skating medals available at a single Games—means it’s unlikely that OTP will cut all of its high-performance funding. If Canada wants to “win” another Winter Olympics, it needs speed skating and its twenty medal events. However, water polo, with only two medal events, isn’t so fortunate. For the men’s water polo team, the distinction between have and have-not sports has been devastating.

“We got our funding cut a few months before the Pan Am Games in 2015, which were the Olympic qualifiers,” said goaltender Robin Randall, who was a member of the Olympic men’s water polo team in 2008 (the first since 1984 to qualify for the Games). “We lost about $600,000 and finished ninth at worlds. Then at Pan Ams, we lost to the US in the semifinal by one point. Winning would’ve qualified us.”

It may seem too easy to blame not making it to the Games on one factor—even if that factor is the sudden loss of more than half a million dollars—but the impacts of such financial shortfalls should not be underestimated. Randall is convinced that his team was good enough to compete in Rio. But he’s more concerned about how the next cohort of water polo players will get to 2020 without funding for travel and coaches.

And water polo isn’t the only sport that took this kind of financial hit. Field Hockey Canada suffered a similar fate when its men’s $900,000 budget evaporated in 2013.

Canadian sport undeniably needed and needs a group such as OTP, one devoted to helping athletes achieve the most they possibly can at the end of their careers. It allowed me—an athlete who was already competing at an elite level internationally when OTP began—to feel less like an amateur next to competitors in Dittmer’s class. It helped fund my coaching, sport science, and travel. I doubt that I would have stood on the podium waving at my parents in Beijing eight years ago if it had not been for the funding that came with OTP. But there is a big difference between managing a “top-up” pool of excellence money—OTP’s mandate—and being in de facto control of a large portion of the money supporting Canada’s sport organizations. In our quest to win gold in Vancouver, we built a top-heavy sport system focused primarily on winning Olympic medals; the sacrifice worked, briefly, but now it is time to consider something more long-term.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has announced that it may review the way money is allocated under OTP’s “targeted excellence” program. But for such a review to be meaningful, Canada must first address the basic question of what goals we are seeking to advance through our taxpayer-funded sport system. And the simplest way to begin that analysis is with the principles enshrined in law. According to Canada’s Physical Activity and Sport Act, “The objectives of the Government of Canada’s policy regarding sport are: (a) to increase participation in the practice of sport and support the pursuit of excellence in sport; and (b) to build capacity in the Canadian sport system.” (In this sense, “participation” refers to the country’s millions of recreational athletes, not just the ones who devote their lives to a sport.) The same priorities are embedded in the Olympic Charter, which defines the Olympic movement as one meant to “build a better world by educating youth through sport.”

Since 2004, Canada’s direct investment in sport has more than doubled. But the total size of the financial pie matters less than how it is divided: according to a 2013 parliamentary background paper, only 13 percent of the government’s 2009-10 investment in sport went toward boosting participation, despite the fact that participation rates in organized sport have declined by 17 percent since 1992—with the sharpest decline among young adults. That is bad not only for Canadians, but for high-performance sport as a whole. That age group represents the next generation of Olympic medallists.

After the London Games in 2012, OTP finessed its development policy slightly, announcing that it would direct a portion of its budget—about $20 million over four years—toward younger athletes. These athletes would get the best coaching, sport science, and financial support to give them the best chance of winning future medals. That may sound far-sighted. But it won’t do much to increase the broad athletic base required to produce and sustain a large pool of high-level athletes across a wide range of sports. In fact, extending OTP’s elitist mantra to younger and younger athletes could make it even harder for the likes of Dittmer and Hughes (and, yes, me) to get their shot at the Olympics.

So what strategy would encourage Canadians to participate in a variety of sports, create a deep talent pool, and also produce enough athletes at the elite level to ensure that Canada is properly represented among Olympic medallists every two years? Ultimately, there is no substitute for greater funding. Sport plays such a huge role in the lives of Canadians—as exercise, as an engine of self-esteem, as a model of teamwork, and as a source of national pride. And yet the budget allotted to sport by our federal government is minuscule relative to those of other government programs.

But if total spending on sport remains static, forcing us to decide between an impressive medal count and a more inclusive approach to participation and sporting excellence, let us prioritize the latter.

“Winning is not everything, and medals are not everything,” says Clara Hughes. “I have finished in second-to-last place in the Olympics and been profoundly affected as a human being, and I’ve won the Olympics and been dragged to the depths of despair as a human being. So many times, I was asked about winning and ‘owning the podium,’ and I always said, ‘Those are not my words; I do not feel that way.’”

To emphasize her point, she returns to speed-skating great Gaétan Boucher and the moment she was inspired to drop her habit of smoking a pack a day.

“I always think of Gaétan and when I saw him skate his last race. He finished in ninth place. He went into it, I don’t know in what state; he just collapsed on the last lap in Calgary because he had gone so hard. He went from world-record pace to ninth, and it was the most awesome thing I had seen in my life up to that point. To see someone care for something and struggle and suffer for something—it changed my life, seeing it. And he didn’t win. I always remembered that.”

I didn’t start canoeing because I wanted to win an Olympic medal. I didn’t decide one day when I was eleven that I was going to devote most of my teens and my entire twenties to being an athlete—to not partying, to twenty workouts a week, to delaying my education by eight years, to not getting work experience, to accumulating debt—all so I could stand on a podium. I paddled because I loved it. And to reduce almost twenty years of effort to how many medals I won cheapens not only my sacrifices, but also the efforts of the coaches, volunteers, and administrators who make sport possible in Canada. Hughes is right. Sport isn’t about which canoe crosses the finish line first. It’s about what we put into the stroke.

This appeared in the September 2016 issue.

Thomas Hall (@tomhallca) contributes to Canadian Geographic, the Toronto Star, and various Postmedia outlets. He won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Sébastien Thibault draws for the New York Times, L’actualité, and The Atlantic.

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