The Defenders

Outrageous. Impossible. Presumptuous.

Plenty of colourful adjectives were used to describe Canada’s ambitious goal to top the medal ranking in Vancouver. But no one can argue the outcome. We did own the podium. Fourteen gold medals: a Winter Games record.

Four years on, what is the prognosis for an encore? Looking to Sochi, Team Canada returns to the Olympics with a powerhouse contingent, including world champions in eight sports and medal potential in virtually every Olympic event. A potent combination of depth and newcomers fuelled by sustained funding from Own The Podium (OTP).

There certainly will still be plenty to cheer about. Core Canadian strength remains in freestyle skiing, short track speed skating, curling, hockey, bobsleigh and figure skating. Get used to the laid-back attitudes in the “new-school” events of slopestyle and half pipe where Canadians dominate. And excitement will thrive in cross country, skicross, alpine and luge.

It’s been a spectacular buildup to Sochi. Mikael Kingsbury has won virtually every freestyle moguls event for three seasons. Kallie Humphries has ruled as queen of the bobsleigh track, taking both World Cup and world championship titles. Charles Hamelin continues to dominate in short track speed skating. With each world championship title, Patrick Chan raises the performance bar with world-record point totals. Maelle Ricker and Dominique Maltais have owned women’s snowboardcross.

A crowd of new stars is poised to burst onto the Olympic scene, including reigning world champions Rosalind Groenewoud, (fresh off knee surgery in freestyle slopestyle), Mark McMorris (snowboard slopestyle) and Spencer O’Brien (women’s snowboard slopestyle).

So what has powered Canadian performance post-2010, when conventional wisdom suggests the previous host nation slumps? Sustained funding has been the difference. A total even higher than the well-publicized investment leading into 2010 — $5 million more — bringing the four-year total invested into our medal potential athletes to more than $90 million.

In the post-home Games environment, this investment has enabled Canadian winter sport to keep most of the world-class coaches who guided teams. Experts who work at Canadian Sport Institutes, including physiotherapists and strength and conditioning trainers, remain in place.

And the system has been nimble, able to inject capital quickly when the International Olympic Committee made the single largest addition to the Winter Games program in 2011 (adding 11 new events). Both the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own The Podium stepped up with millions in new dollars for the fledgling new sports that rushed to find coaches and more structured team training from a free-wheeling individual environment.

The goal was to maintain the edge, keep momentum alive. Canadian results since 2010 confirm the wave of podium-potential athletes wearing the Maple Leaf remained robust.

The original vision of Own The Podium was to bring together Canada’s fragmented sport system around one goal: to top the medal tally. Five years of strenuous effort to collaborate produced an ironic, but enthusiastically accepted side benefit: Canada did indeed top the Olympic rankings with 14 gold medals. But who will argue with that outcome?

A University of Alberta study following 2010 confirmed 94 per cent of Canadians felt proud when a Canadian athlete won gold, 84 per cent saw the medal count as important for Canada’s standing in the world and 80.9 per cent supported the Own The Podium investment in our Olympic and Paralympic athletes. No wonder the federal government deemed support for Canadian athletes important, thus increasing the financial investment in the budget of March 1, 2010.

For the first time, as a nation, we committed to our athletes. A vision for excellence was set. Clear goals established. An accountability framework developed and the players committed to a mission to win more medals than any other nation. We embraced excellence. We prepared like athletes.

A quick review of history helps explain where the goal to aim for No.1 came from. In the modern era of the Games, Canada has been steadily moving up the ranks in winter sport and, at the time Vancouver was awarded the right to host the 2010 Olympics, the nation was ranked fifth with 17 medals won in 2002 Salt Lake City. At Turin that number grew to 24 medals. The ongoing argument from sport was how poorly funded our sport programs were in relation to other nations.

With the focus of a home Games, the 13 winter sport organizations approached both funding agencies, and the Olympic and Paralympic leadership, to develop a plan to lift Canadian sport. With the entire leadership in the room on Feb. 3, 2004, an informal poll for potential medals won and cost to do so resulted in a belief we could, as a nation, aim to be No. 1. Own The Podium was born.

OTP lifted our national team programs, investing in new coaches, more training opportunities in better locations, support to more athletes at the elite level and research into ways and means to find precious hundredths where the difference between a medal and no medal is often measured in the smallest ways. It was a game-changer.

It also meant the bar was raised. And many questioned if this was appropriate. Four years ago, the uninformed asked about the “new assertive attitude” in Canadian sport, where “showing up” was no longer acceptable. Was this appropriate? Was it Canadian?

What bull. Canadian athletes have always wanted to win. Don’t think it was anything less than gold for Wayne Gretzky in Salt Lake City in 2002, or for freestyler Jean-Luc Brassard in 1994 or for slalom ace Nancy Greene in 1968. The change that OTP funding brought was resources — sustained podium-potential funding. Finally, we put athletes first in Games preparation.

But all is not rosy in 2014.

Moving to an offshore Olympic and Paralympic environment brings new hurdles. Gone are all those precious extra accreditations for support staff, easier and more frequent training at venues, and familiarity with the home environment. The number of eyes on the athletes is reduced, the hands to assist with everything from medical to equipment preparation are fewer. Team logistics are more complicated.

The new events bring new excitement, but also stress. Snowboard and Freestyle doubled in size overnight, putting enormous pressure on the administrative staff as they scrambled to add coaches, sport service providers and technicians to support two new teams of athletes.

And behind the façade of podium results is an enormous drop-off of private sector funding. An estimated $9 million per year dropped out of the system. With OTP funding targeted to medal-potential athletes, the burden of budget-slashing has fallen on development programs, putting future performance at risk. The result is that our talent pipeline is dwindling to a trickle.

A longer-term concern is the lack of investment into future medal contenders. OTP funding ensures medal-potential athletes are well-financed. But up-and-comers moving from the provincial ranks into national teams are finding funding and sponsorship to be ever more scarce, with bills now running to $30,000 per year, just to stay in the game. We may not see the impact of this diminished support in Sochi, but many are sounding a warning that Canada’s performance may dip dramatically at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

The five-year lead-up to the 2010 Games was a steep learning curve for all of Canada’s winter sport leaders. Many embraced the change and the results were evident in Vancouver. Others stuck to old methodology and learned the hard way that not only has sport changed, Canada changed. Planning was ruthless. The mantra was “examine every opportunity.” The delivery was expected to be seamless. There were to be no surprises. Every Canadian athlete was expected to move to the line, start gate or game prepared, confident and with every single aspect of training and competition considered.

This isn’t something new in sport. But to raise the bar takes time, money and commitment. It wasn’t a change in will to win. Canadian sport simply shifted to a deliberate approach to success.

As we head into Sochi, the change even from the run-up to Vancouver is very real. The Canadian Olympic Committee (responsible for all Games preparation and the Games Mission) and OTP (oversight for high-performance planning and technical evaluation of sports) are committed to a seamless approach to the Games. Every targeted sport has detailed high-performance plans embedded within their strategic plan, which is challenged by a panel of experts and updated annually. Athletes should believe every detail is covered, every contingency considered, all the necessary people are in place to provide support.

The trick is to translate world championship performance to Olympic medals. World championships are sprinkled throughout the winter world at venues chosen by international sport federations. The Games are held in one city over a 17-day period and run by an Olympic Organizing Committee that is supervised by the International Olympic Committee which controls accreditation, security, transportation, venue development — seamlessness becomes the critical key.

So can Canada repeat in Sochi? The bare-knuckle assessment would be 28 Olympic medals. This certainly won’t win the total medal tally, but the only real measure the world uses is the IOC ranking list — by gold medal — and this is certainly achievable.

Does it really matter? To thousands of aspiring future Olympians and Paralympians right across our country who pin their dreams on a robust Canadian sport system, our Games performance is critical. To the athletes who represent us in Sochi, they believe in setting goals and being accountable for the investment in their dream. Most of these athletes work daily under the radar of mainstream media who gather at the Games to shine the spotlight on the noble Olympian, missing the cut and thrust of real sport in Canada. Owning the podium is as important for every member of the Canadian team bound for Sochi.

A clear vision to be a leader in winter sport demands we aim for No. 1. We are a winter nation and we have depth, passion and expertise to lift our athletes to the podium.

About Ken Read

"You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!" - Oh, the Places You'll Go (1990) Dr. Seuss
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