O Canada. The Star-Spangled Banner. I’ve raced for both.

O Canada. The Star-Spangled Banner. I’ve raced for both.

'America treats sport like a commercialized entertainment spectacle. Canada values sport as part of core culture.'

By John Fennell for CBC Sports
February 13, 2019

Sport is a mirror on society. Often times it is a magnifying glass.

I have competed at the international level for both Canada and the United States Admittedly, luge is a fringe sport in both countries; entirely dependent on the Olympic movement. But I think my competitive years have given me insights about amateur sport, and how it fits into both systems. Here it goes then: a luger’s perspective on Canadian and American sport culture.

Before I get into this, some backstory ...  In December 2015, I raced for the last time for Team Canada in Calgary. I had trouble putting two clean runs together in the European races just prior. At the beginning of that season, I won Canadian nationals. I needed a top-five finish in Calgary to continue with the national team. The race was slated for Friday; by Tuesday, I was at the American consulate, updating my passport. I knew my time with Team Canada was ending before I had the result.

John Fennell prepares to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (Alex Livesey/Gety Images). John Fennell prepares to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (Alex Livesey/Gety Images).

Flash forward to January 2016. I am sitting in the Calgary airport, en route to Lake Placid, New York to ask for the opportunity to integrate into the American program. I had my training gear as my carry on and I remember looking at my helmet with my Olympic Maple Leaf sticker on it. I couldn't just throw it out, but I felt wrong bringing it with me. I kept it on the back of my phone as a reminder of where I came from — and where I wanted to go. This was the hardest decision I have ever made.

I integrated into the American program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Lake Placid in the spring of 2016. The learning curve was steep. The national team had more than double Canada’s  number of athletes in the pool and twice as many coaches. In Canada, the team worked with the same coach for weight lifting, start training, and recovery. In the States, all these roles were specialized.  Even though there were more athletes, coaches paid attention to improvement and hard work — you didn’t have to be the best to get noticed. I trained all day, and I had to work nights as a bartender to cover my bills. Even though there were more spots for athletes, a smaller percentage of them received a living stipend. For the rest of that summer, I worked to get ready for my first competitive season as an American. Whoa.

At that point, I had no international results or domestic results as an American. I had taken eight months away from on-ice training to deal with this transition. New coaches, new equipment, a track that I wasn’t familiar with, and an inconsistent history. Despite all this, the American program took a chance on me and gave me four World Cup opportunities that season.

The point is, I had so much more opportunity in the USA. I was treated more than fairly and I’ll be forever grateful for that. I think the simplest explanation is that USA Luge has more available resources than Luge Canada.


Sport and celebrity

Sport serves different functions in Canada and the U.S. In my experience, America treats sport more like a commercialized entertainment spectacle, whereas Canada values sport as part of core culture. What I mean is, in the U.S., athletes are celebrities. In Canada, athletes are, well,  athletes.  Their value comes from what they do, not their marketability.

Consider the number of bona fide celebrities who come out of the Olympic movement. Most of them are Americans — Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, Adam Rippon, Mikaela Shiffrin, Chloe Kim. We could continue. My teammate Chris Mazdzer won a silver medal in Korea. Chris has blown up as an ambassador for USA Luge. He even landed a spot on Dancing With the Stars (go Chris!). 

Canadian Alex Gough celebrating her bronze medal at the 2018 Games (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images). Canadian Alex Gough celebrating her bronze medal at the 2018 Games (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images).

I asked Canada’s bronze medallist, Alex Gough, what she thought about luge athletes in the spotlight. She said: 

“It’s pretty amazing how athletes in the U.S. and Canada become these household name celebrities. They give people these incredible role models to look up to. It was really amazing to watch Chris Mazdzer,  from my own sport,  which doesn’t get a lot of attention in North America, get catapulted into the limelight after his silver medal in Pyeongchang.”

No question, the USA is unique in how it makes celebrities of its athletes.  I think this speaks to how American media commodifies sport as entertainment. On top of that, the world of sport in the U.S. just seems so much bigger. From professional leagues, and collegiate sport, all the way down to amateur Olympic sport — it felt like being a national athlete carried more important status in the U.S. than in Canada.


Training centres

Somedays, training at the USOTC kind of feels like a prison. I mean this in the nicest way. But it feels like an institution — especially when you are there all season. Your gym, cafeteria, weight room, social circles, rehab centre all exist under one roof. You are constantly surrounded by the same faces. I think that is actually a good thing. Living in a tiny town in upstate New York, I really relied on my team for my social connection. Most athletes who train at any of the USOTCs (California, Colorado or New York) lean on the athletes around them for social connection. When I trained in Canada, I still had a life outside of sport. I went to university, I had other friends, and I would only spend five hours a day at the training center. I think sport plays an important role in forging friendships and the closeness of training at the USOTC fosters more of that.

Weather matters too. I noticed a funny distinction when I first settled into the American training environment. In Canada, the Winter Olympic movement is king. I think Canadian summer sport athletes would agree that winter sports get more media attention and support. That’s not the case in the U.S.  Even though it is a bigger sporting nation in general, the summer sports cast a deep shadow over winter sport.


Public and private approaches

In Canada, the bulk of funding for amateur sport comes from the federal “Own the Podium” program. In addition, the Canadian Olympic Committee basically operates independently from the individual sport organizations — all parties only come together during the competition period. On top of that, the Canadian Sport Institutes throughout Canada (the places where athletes actually train) also are governed independently. Confused? Me too.

What it boils down to is: Canadian sport is delivered by a network of federally and provincially-funded independent organizations. And the American side of me would argue, governments are not particularly efficient at spending. 

In the States, this whole system is streamlined. The US Olympic Committee oversees the Games mission, the training environments, and plays a role in governing the individual sport organizations. It’s important to note the U.S. has one of the only Olympic governing bodies that is not federally funded.  The USOC relies on private resources to provide athletes with top-level training. And it does a great job. I think because the U.S. Olympic movement implements business practices, it’s leaner and operates more efficiently.

Luge in Canada  was entirely dependent on federal funding. When I was on the national team, luge Canada did not have a single private sponsor. This meant a tiny team size and fewer opportunities for athletes. The U.S. luge team, in comparison, had at least four title sponsors, bigger teams and more opportunities.

I am forever grateful for the opportunities that I had in both countries. I competed for Canada at the Olympics. I did not qualify for Pyeongchang with Team USA, but I am learning how valuable that experience has been for my personal development. I am currently living back in Canada, finishing my undergrad studies in Victoria. I am not sure where I will end up after I am done, but I am happy to know that I have options in both countries.

(Top and middle large photos submitted by John Fennell; Bottom large photo by Lionel Bonaventure/Getty Image).

The John Fennell edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: Shoe Dog, Phil Knight — stock business school answer

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: My Favorite Murder

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: When faced with self-doubt, ask "Why not me?"

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: You win some, you luge some.

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: Let's get this bread.

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: Sharing my feelings :(

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I really like houseplants!

Q: What scares you? 
A: Going fast.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite?
A: Sporty, Scary, Baby, Posh, Ginger ... Pam from the office.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Any emotional commercial with moms in it.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Right now the plan is to finish my undergrad. In the last nine months of school (woo!), the goal is to find my next passion.

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