Road To The Olympic Games

Money at Play·Analysis

Canadian Olympic Committee can't forget to celebrate

As it tries to distance itself from the contentious Marcel Aubut era, the COC must strike a balance between fiscal responsibility and elevating Canada's greatest athletes and Olympic moments.

Post-Aubut era should be about more than fiscal responsibility

Moments like Erica Wiebe's wrestling gold-medal victory in Rio represent a chance to deepen the bond between Canadians and their Olympic athletes. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

The Canadian Olympic Committee is now firmly in the post-Marcel Aubut era.

Last week, for what seemed like the first time since the Aubut scandal tarnished the Canadian Olympic movement, COC CEO Chris Overholt took centre stage with an Olympic-themed lunch at the Empire Club in Toronto.

Overholt spoke passionately of the values of the Olympic movement, highlighted the success of the Canadian team in Rio, pointed to the infusion of youth in Canada's high-performance sport system and gave insight into the COC's strategic direction over the next quadrennial with four major funding announcements.

Despite being about on par with past quadrennial commitments, the numbers made for impressive headlines. The $132 million in funding includes $37 million for Own the Podium, $16 million for developing next-generation Olympians, $5 million for enhancing the capacity of our national sport organizations, a $5-million investment in coaching and $1 million towards Game Plan, a program to better prepare athletes for life after sport.

Everything Overholt preached was aligned with driving Canada's Olympic performance forward. This sounds like an organization attempting to move on from the lingering harassment scandal that marked the end of Aubut's tenure as president of the COC, and striving to keep Canada's athletes at the centrepiece of the conversation. 

Overholt also acknowledged that the COC will be cutting staff "in order to be in a better position to deliver for athletes and partners." The organization didn't say how many people were being let go, but did say the layoffs aren't linked to the Aubut affair.

Apart from the talk of funding and staff cuts, there was an unspoken indication of the new direction that might be taken by current president Tricia Smith and the board of directors.

Big events make big impressions

Under Aubut's leadership the COC didn't hesitate to throw flashy parades, luncheons and sport celebrations. Effectively, they were moonlighting in the events business. It seems like that's about to change under Smith, as no such outward-facing events were mentioned in Overholt's remarks. 

From an athlete perspective, I get it. I believe most would say the COC's money is better spent on athletes and coaches than on throwing big street parties. Yet I also worry that, after years of putting our Canadian athletes in front of our communities post-Games with parades, school visits and hospital appearances, a shift away from these kinds of events may change the relationships current athletes and the public have with the Canadian Olympic team. 

In recent years, the Canadian Olympic Committee has successfully rebranded itself as the Canadian Olympic team. It's now an athlete-driven brand. I've witnessed athletes go from oblivious association with the COC to engaged and proud. Athletes from previous generations have come back to the movement to mentor and celebrate, and sponsors have returned to the table, helping make Olympic values relevant 52 weeks of the year.

Is this all because of a few parties and gala dinners? Not directly, but let's also not underestimate the power of elevating the Olympic movement outside of competition. 

Athletes want to be celebrated for their achievements, brought together to elevate the history of the Games and be put at the forefront of the movement. Many were inspired to become Olympians by specific Olympic moments. If we don't celebrate those moments (past and present), the Olympic movement is in trouble.

I'm not advocating for another lavish Montreal luncheon, nor am I saying events should be the COC's focus. I'm just saying they shouldn't be forgotten. It may not take long for athletes to disengage if they don't see more than a press release with quadrennial funding numbers. 

My hope is that there's a middle ground between the COC's committing to being more fiscally responsible and athlete-centred with its spending and ensuring they don't just become a middle man for funding.

The COC needs to be the driver when it comes to elevating our Canadian Olympic teams, and sometimes that might take a little spending.

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