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Own The Podium chief says athletes' cries for change are heard

Maybe the name "Own The Podium" was a problem. Canada has posted some of its biggest medal hauls in Olympic Games over the last dozen years, but how the country has gone about owning the podium is now under the microscope.
Team Canada, with Isabelle Weidemann left, Valerie Maltais centre and Ivanie Blondin, react after wining the gold medal and setting an Olympic record in the speedskating women's team pursuit finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Beijing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Ashley Landis

Maybe the name "Own The Podium" was a problem.

Canada has posted some of its biggest medal hauls in Olympic Games over the last dozen years, but how the country has gone about owning the podium is now under the microscope.

Established in 2005 after Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., won the bid to host the 2010 Winter Games, Own The Podium's goal was to strategize athletes onto the podium and rank Canada number one among countries in total medals at a home Olympic Games.

That label, and the ceaseless pursuit of medals inherent in its messaging, raised eyebrows in light of Canada's international reputation of polite people who are quick to apologize. 

One of OTP's previous chief executive officers, Alex Baumann, said the name was aspirational, but has it landed that way?

"We entered into this conversation that squarely put all the PR pressure directly on the athletes and the outcomes they were able to create," said Russell Reimer, whose agency represents several Olympians.

Canada ranked third in total medals with 26 in 2010 — two more than in 2006 and nine more than in 2002. While it wasn't the stated goal, the host team won the most gold medals with 14 in Vancouver and Whistler.

Twenty-nine medals in 2018 was a Winter Olympics record for Canada and ranked the country third. Twenty-four last year in Tokyo for 11th was the most by Canada at a non-boycotted Summer Olympics.

Through consultation with the national sport organizations, who oversee athletes' competitive lives, OTP makes funding recommendations directing about $70 million of Sport Canada money to NSOs for athletes with medal potential, while also providing technical advice to the NSOs.

All sports receive core funding out of a pot of $150 million. 

OTP's funding recommendations, which require federal ministerial approval, is additional, targeted funding to assist athletes onto the world, Olympic and Paralympic podiums.

"Before the targeted excellence funding came into play, the approach was funding was spread a mile wide and an inch deep," OTP CEO Anne Merklinger said. "Our results on the world stage showed the impact of that.

"With the introduction of the targeted excellence funding, Canada has achieved a level of excellence on the global stage that is quite positive." 

But in the weeks since the close of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — four of 26 medals were gold to rank fourth overall — a wave of athletes have demanded cultural change from the organizations that oversee them.

In what new Canadian Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has called a crisis, there's been accusations of maltreatment, sexual abuse or misuse of funds made against at least eight national sport organizations in her first five months in office.

A sport system under pressure has blown a gasket.

St-Onge scrambled with an emergency roundtable, the announcement of $16-million in safe sport funding in last week's budget and the appointment of a sport integrity commissioner on the job May 1.

Merklinger insists how Canadians win medals is as important as the medals themselves.

"We have been changing the way we pursue excellence on a world stage," Merklinger said. "We've been working in the culture space, trying to make sure that we're providing everyone involved in high-performance sport a safe environment in order for them to achieve their goals. 

"We were doing that two years before the pandemic. Culture is a critical contributor to high-performance sport in our country.

"Every conversation that we've had with key stakeholders over the last six weeks, everyone is committed to this, everyone is looking at ways that we individually and collectively can address the concerns that are being expressed by the athletes."

Funding decisions create tension between the athletes, their NSOs and OTP, however.

"Organizations will literally use them as a scapegoat, like 'Own The Podium needs to see this and if you guys don't get a medal, we won't get funding,'" said former alpine skier Allison Forsyth, who now works with athletes in the field of safe sport. 

"The pressure that puts on an athlete is what leads I think a lot of the times to mental-health challenges."

Merklinger acknowledged there is system strain over money.

"We know that there are many organizations that are concerned about the funding model in the country," she said. 

"There's $150 million a year annually that goes to core support. That money goes to every sport in Canada and that has not been increased in 13 to 14 years.

"The sport system needs an injection of new funding so national sport organizations are less reliant on targeted excellence funding."

Two-time Olympic trampoline champion Rosannagh MacLennan believes OTP fulfils its mandate. 

"They've been pretty successful in transforming medal potential into medals and helping NSOs create training environments that are set up for high performance," she said. 

She also says she's felt the undercurrent of funding pressure.

"My desire to win medals was purely my own goal," MacLennan said. "I did feel there was pressure to perform on that one specific day at the Olympic Games.

"I felt a burden that the future of my sport's success was in some ways dependent on my performance in one minute, every four years."

OTP, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee have backed off setting hard targets in recent Olympic Games.

The COC, which contributes roughly $15 million annually to OTP's targeted funding, prepares athletes for Olympic and Pan American Games, and looks after athletes' needs on the ground. The COC funds its operations via corporate sponsorships.

"I have just uniquely come off of two Olympic Games in the span of seven months where I saw the incredible power of Canadian sport," COC CEO David Shoemaker said, pointing to Olympic gold won by the women's soccer and hockey teams and Damian Warner's decathlon gold medal.

"I feel compelled to point out that I'm a supporter of Own The Podium. I believe in our high-performance strategy.

"Moments like this though should cause us to say 'OK, what may have been appropriate in 2010 needs a refresh.'

"I think this is an inflection point where we have to take a hard look at the high-performance strategy, we need to listen to our athletes, we need to reflect on the feedback and decide on whether the strategy needs a tweak."

OTP is providing a culture assessment and audit tool for NSOs "to assess their culture and a key part of that is mental health," Merklinger said.

A "Gold Medal Profile for Sport Psychology" developed by six mental performance consultants has mental health as an overriding theme, she said.

"It definitely reinforces the interplay between mental health and mental performances," Merklinger said. "Now that has been developed, we have a group of experts in this area to engage with sports and make sure there aren't any gaps."

Changing the name "Own The Podium" hasn't been discussed during Merklinger's decade at the helm.

"That doesn't mean that it doesn't warrant a conversation," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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