By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via John Lehmann.
The Rio Olympics are coming to a close but already it’s offered our country a rich treasure trove of success stories that will live on, eclipsing even the gloomiest of predictions leading up to the games.
The Olympics, like any sporting event, are about the stories they tell, stories of hope and perseverance – sometimes tragic, but all of them poetic. For young Andre De Grasse, 21, from Scarborough, it’s a story of potential – one that’s far from over – and it played out this week as De Grasse punched above his weight, challenging the greatest runner of all time head on to earn his, and his country’s respect (plus a few Olympic medals.) Earlier in the week, Derek Drouin, the reserved, always relaxed, high jumper from Corunna soared to victory, as did Team Canada flag-bearer, Rosie MacLennan, on the trampoline, when she became the first Canadian to win gold medals in the same event in two Summer Olympics back-to-back. As her score was announced, MacLennan’s legs would nearly buckle from shock. Erica Wiebe also continued Canada’s domination of Women’s Wrestling, winning gold with a commanding performance.
It’s through our athletes that we see our country. It’s in them that we recognize our humility and our strength, our capacity to surprise and overperform and rise above the challenges ahead of us – and no one quite encapsulates that more than Canada’s new sweetheart, Penny Oleksiak, 16, from Toronto, who (politely) smashed her way onto the world stage. Clutched tightly in her hand is a pawful of Olympic medals, a new world record, and the admiration of Canadians across the country for her outstanding performances in a number of swimming events, including the 100 m freestyle, the 100 m butterfly, and 4 x 100 m and 4 x 200 m freestyle relays. Oleksiak, born this millennium (the first for an Olympian) quite literally represents the future of swimming for Canada.
Women have been the driving engine behind Canada’s success at the Rio Olympics, claiming fifteen of the twenty one medals won so far at the time of writing. While Canada’s female athletes have always been a force to be reckoned with, this trend does mark a new development for Canada. Over the six Summer Olympics between 1996 to 2016 that we looked at more closely what we found is most Olympics feature a natural gender parity incidentally, as was the case in the London games, as well as in Athens and Sydney. With these most recent games, however, Canada’s women have carried the majority of its medal wins and pushed Team Canada past its goal of nineteen medals for this Olympics, whether we include Penny Oleksiak’s breakthrough or not (the difference of 15-6, versus 11-6.)
What did not fare as well as Canada’s women in our analysis, however, was the so-called ‘Own the Podium’ (OTP) organization, the brainchild of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which since 2009 has provided targeted funding to various Summer Olympics events under the Team Canada banner to support potential medalists. The program has proven controversial over the years and has accumulated a vocal minority of detractors who suggest it lets down struggling Canadian sports programs, pulling them into a downward cycle and puts unnecessary pressure on individual athletes to qualify for their financial support. Coming to the defense of their organization, you can count on Own the Podium’s officials to hail journalists faster than Usain Bolt when the results of each medal win are in, routinely taking credit for any of the most recent wins as ‘yet another’ example of the success of their targeted financial support offered to Canada’s top athletes.
But do they deserve that credit?
Post hoc ergo propter hoc is one of the first expressions an arts student learns in university and it comes with a simple but important message: just because something happens after something else doesn’t mean one event caused the other. Sometimes events simply aren’t related. But it’s a nuanced lesson in the nature of things that the various heads of the OTP organization over the years have appeared to have skipped.
Own the Podium has improved Canada’s results at the Summer Olympics, don’t get me wrong. Over a period of twenty years (or six Olympics, 1996-2016) we looked at it, we found whereas Canada was hauling 16.75 medals each Summer Olympics on average prior to London, after Own the Podium began its targeted funding, Canada has been bringing 19.5 shiny medals home on average for a difference of 2.75. But that’s less than a three medal difference for a +$100M program.
We only found a weak positive correlation between the change of subsidy granted to sports between London and Rio, versus the change in their results. The Equestrian events and Gymnastics suffered significant cutbacks (+$3M each), for example, but either matched or better their London results in Rio due to winning performances from Eric Lamaze and Rosie MacLennan. The gains in funding to Athletics and Swimming (+$5M) netted nine more medals as a result mostly of star performances from powerhouses, Penny Oleksiak and Andre De Grasse, in the pool and on the track.
The consequence of Own the Podium has not been some extraordinary leap forward – Canada matched or outperformed its OTP results in Atlanta (21) and Beijing (19) – the major result of Own the Podium, it seems, has been greater consistency as Canada has reliably followed a similar trend (19 medals over 9 sports) without the weaker results that we witnessed in Athens and Sydney. We found no evidence of a ‘downturn’ on how many sports Canada was competitive in, which was one of the fears of the organization’s critics; Canada has taken medals in nine sports (e.g., athletics, swimming, wrestling) fairly consistently before and after Own the Podium was implemented.
It appears that the issue with Own the Podium is not an issue with its target funding per se, but an issue with its ambition. The committee only set a medal count target (19) for this Olympics that would match, not better, its pre-OTP result in Beijing, after all.
Yet rather than discuss how we could improve Canada’s Own the Podium initiative, many columnists across the country have taken Canada’s Olympic hopes to task, writing that we shouldn’t be investing in white elephants like the Olympics, not when fitness and sport initiatives directed at the wider public go underfunded. Oh the children, they write shrilly with a touch of sanctimony. Think of the (obese) children. As if supporting top Canadian athletes as a major priority will overwhelm the country with a sea of couch potatoes. But even if that false dichotomy were true, however, the value these critics confer to our public fitness regime does not match the reality it delivers.
No level of government, but especially not the federal government, is well disposed with the tools for changing the fitness of Canadians – it’s an inclusive idea that sounds good for a column’s worth of moral fluff, but sport and exercise are personal to the individual, it’s a deeply cultural and class-sensitive issue where solutions cannot simply be legislated and programmed into Canadians from Ottawa.
The levers available to government are limited in a free and open society in such a way that changing the behaviour of residents is a serious challenge; social change can only be pursued through the narrowest of channels: cheesy ads that preach to the choir, tax credits that are only used by people who were going to play anyways, subsidized gym facilities used by the same people ready to pay for them, and mandatory physical education classes despised by their primary target audience.
The latter, physical education, is an especially massive contradiction; beloved by athletic students and hated by those who are probably the ones intended to gain the most from it, the traditional gym class is an embarrassing pubescent ritual that does an excellent job at convincing thousands of innocent, overly sweaty teenagers every year that they look terrible in shorts and that they should keep a barge-pole’s length away from sports, gyms, fields, whistles and tracksuits for the rest of their waking life. Its heightened, reified status as an institution has left physical education immune to the same cutbacks suffered by Music, Civics and the Arts under the proviso of servicing ‘public health’.
Rather than try to pump money into changing the behaviour of the public, which is a losing battle, Canada should make supporting its athletes at the Olympics a top priority of its sports agenda. We can’t convince people in great numbers to change their lifestyles through government initiatives and public education but what we can do well is sponsor extraordinary athletes prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to represent our country.
There is a deep hunger across this country, a desire for more medals at the Olympics – medals are a national achievement, a signal to the rest of the world and to our ourselves that Canada is serious about competing and punching above its weight internationally. It’s a marriage between the public who want medals and the athletes who want to win them.
It’s encouraging to hear sports minister Carla Qualtrough is interested in looking into reforming Own the Podium. Qualtrough, who is also a three-time Paralympic medalist, told the National Post: “Like any coach would tell you, we always have to review our game plan. We’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years,” she continues. “Is this the best way to optimize the investment we’re making (while) making sure we’re getting results and remaining competitive internationally?” While targeted funding has been successful in reshaping Canada’s performance at the Olympics to be consistently above average, we’ve found its gains mark a plateau in Canada’s growth. Any athlete knows that to be the best, you cannot be satisfied with reaching and maintaining a higher plateau, you have to push forward to advance your own personal best.
There are a number of ways in which Own the Podium could be reformed – for starters, it could be expanded from being simply a ‘top-up’ subsidy to an intervening mechanism for when sports fall well behind in their estimated potential. That would mean taking a more hands-on approach when Canada is set to perform poorly in a sport it could be expected to perform far better in, such as Canoeing and Kayaking. That would shift Own the Podium from being reactive to being more constructive. But regardless, athletes in Canada receive far less support from the federal government than they do in, say the UK, which is doing exceptionally well in Rio. The equivalent of Own the Podium in the United Kingdom outspent Canada by $450M this Olympics; athletes also receive $60,000 more annually than Canadian athletes on average with regards to the base stipend they receive.
Supporting our athletes and setting higher expectations for our country in Tokyo 2020 and beyond will mean a substantial investment and a new game plan from Ottawa. Own the Podium is ten years old now, while the monthly stipend that Canadian athletes receive was frozen in 2004. It’s in need of a rethink and a revamp for a country with bigger Olympic hopes, post-Vancouver. We’ll have to find the best way to move forward in a world with new technology and digital crowdfunding available with the end goal of supporting our athletes more. But it should be a priority of ours to give our athletes an opportunity to prepare for the next Olympics and arrive in exceptional form since that’s the only thing that will give our athletes a fighting chance to rise above their competition.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.