Chris Rudge: Final act
COC boss expects Canada to shine in Vancouver
Chris Rudge certainly has a flair for the grand exit.
As one of his final acts, Rudge — the Canadian Olympic Committee's chief executive officer — will oversee what many expect to be Canada's finest showing at the Winter Olympics.
The Games, which are set for Feb. 12-28, 2010 in Vancouver, will be Rudge's last major event before he steps down from his post following the end of next year.
Rudge, who began his tenure in 2003, played an important role in the development of Own The Prodium, a five-year, $110-million program aimed at making Canada the top medal nation for Vancouver.
He uses the success of the Torino Games four years ago, where Canadians finished third overall with 24 medals, and other competitions as a barometer of how well the program is working.
Will the investment pay off? Rudge tells CBCSports.ca the proof is in the performances.
CBCSports.ca: From the inception of Own the Podium in 2005, the goal by officials from a spectrum of government and sports federations is for Canada to win the medal count in Vancouver. With the Olympics just around the corner, do you still feel good about those lofty expectations?
Rudge: I still think it was the right goal to set, and I still think it is an achievable one. Our data led us to believe that objective was justified. We were first overall in world championship podium [finishes] last year, which are actually closer to the Olympic experience than World Cup events. So that tells us our programs are continuing to be on track. We're not delusional; we recognize that other countries are working hard. Some countries have backed off a little bit before the Games, but everything we're doing indicate that our programs continue to advance and be strong.
CBCSports.ca: Since the success of 2006 Torino Olympics, the expectations have been high. Does that place added pressure for the athletes, specifically because the Games are in Vancouver?
Rudge: I don't think so. Pressure to compete at that level really accrues to the athletes, and his or her relationship to their discipline. The pressure is on us [who work] in the system, to give the athletes the support they deserve. When we set these objectives, we didn't do so in isolation. We did a lot of analysis. We worked with the sport federations and they collectively said: 'if you guys can get us the money and resources we think we can do this [win].'
The pressure then was for us to deliver the support to the athletes. The athletes live with this. I think the bigger challenge for us at these Games is going to be managing distractions. The media pressure is going to be intense. There are going to be so many Canadian media [in Vancouver] that are going to want access to the athletes on a more frequent basis - sometimes at an inappropriate time.
CBCSports.ca: Where does the COC come in play specifically from that perspective?
Rudge: We have a big roll in that. First of all, we have been providing intensive media training to athletes for a couple of years now. We've also been working closely with the sports federations on providing appropriate access to athletes so that the media aren't short-circuiting the process. Some will, I mean, if I was an aggressive reporter I'm going to do what I can to get the story. But I think the more we help out, the more we're going to usurp the potential for it to get offside. So we'll be doing a lot of that.
CBCSports.ca: For obviously reasons, Canadian athletes are going to get bombarded with media request. Is that worrisome because it may cut into their training time?
Rudge: It's a concern but I think it's been manageable up to this point. We are concerned about not just the media challenge, but also the desire for people to have athletes at events. I want to shut that out pretty quickly. I was with [Canadian bobsledder] Heather [Moyse] recently at an event and told her: 'we have to get these things out of the way now and let you get back to training to focus on what's really important.'
Rudge: Absolutely. I think that will undoubtedly be the biggest legacy to come out of these Games. It won't be cash or venues the way it did back in 1988 with the Calgary Olympics. Calgary has become the base for training for winter sports. We will certainly have great venues that will come out of Vancouver, but what will come out of these Games is a better way to manage the pursuit of high performance goals and support for our athletes. The concept of the Own The Podium program is 80 per cent funded beyond 2010 and in perpetuity. We're [currently] in negotiations with the government and others to top up the little bit that we'll lose because of the fallout from the Vancouver sponsors. We want to make sure that level of we have now stays 100 per cent funded. If fact, [we want it to] grow even beyond that. I think we now have an example of success that we can take to the funding partners and say: 'we established goals and objectives, we had a plan for success, we delivered on our promise and if you continue to support us there's a great return for all Canadians."
CBCSports.ca: Canada had its best-ever showing in Turin, Italy — if we disregard the boycotted 1984 L.A. Games. Did the funding impact that success?
Rudge: Yes. The funding had [just] started, so we had developed some of the programs. More science and research went in and we had better access to physio and massage therapy. That allowed athletes to train longer and recover from training sessions more quickly. We were able to hire more coaches quickly, so that had started to kick in as well. We also started our Olympic prep program, [which] dealt with the issue of conversion rate and preparing athletes to compete in the moment. That precipitated a considerable change in the minds of the athlete community.
They no longer felt that showing up was good enough, and I'm not saying they had in the past, but the people around them didn't have the commitment that the athletes did. They [finally] felt that everybody was there to support them, and that they were getting the tools their competitors had. There was a complete change in attitude and it paid off. Winning at this level is as much in the head as it is in the ability.
Rudge: This has been around for a while but it got a lot of traction now because it was the New York Times. And it was the Americans [who were complaining], which is rather odd that the Americans feel they were done in by poor little Canada. First of all, let me say that home-field advantage or opportunities are one thing, but we're not looking for an unfair advantage.
We think it's important that we give our team every opportunity it can, but we play by the rules. And in this case, I can state unequivocally, that the organizing committee [VANOC] in Vancouver provided more early access to venues [for international skiers] than any organizing committee in history. Everybody has had a chance to compete in world championships or World Cups [at the Whistler, B.C., venues]. There's been significant access. This article was an emotional reaction to misinformation. People [have] to understand that there are protocols involved. You don't just sort of get off the plane and show up and say: 'here I am, I want to ski.''
There's a process to go through in terms of negotiating times with VANOC, getting on when it's appropriate and everybody gets a fair chance. The international federations that control their respective sport are very diligent in making sure that this happens.
Now obviously, Canada has the benefit of geographic proximity - it's there, you're close. There are many elements of home-field advantage that goes beyond simply being in the venue. It's the climate, the eating of the local food, dealing with the local weather, and on and on. That's a big advantage for us.
CBCSports.ca: You can make that point for every Olympics, correct?
Rudge: Sure you can. This is not unique to these Games. We went through it on a number of occasions in Italy where we had been promised things that didn't come through. We didn't make it a public issue; we just understood that it's part of the process.
CBCSports.ca: Take your diplomat hat off for this question. The most anticipated sport, hands down, will be the men's hockey event. Can you forecast the scene if Canada makes it to the final?
Rudge: The relationship with hockey in this country is very visceral, as you know. I think it would be fair to say that while we have an objective of being No. 1 in total medals, if we reach that objective but we don't win the gold in hockey, there will be a large percentage of Canadians who will say the Games are a failure. That's just the nature of Canada and I think we have to understand that. I think if we're in the gold-medal match — the Canadian men and women — for those two games, I can't imagine that there won't be 35 million people watching television. That's a huge testament to the power of hockey in this country.
CBCSport.ca: Finally, Canada has the dubious distinction of being the only nation to host two Olympics without winning a gold medal. That ends in Vancouver, right?
Rudge: I can say that unequivocally.