Road To The Olympic Games

Money at Play

Coaches without borders: Training Olympic athletes is a global business

The Olympic Games are built on the premise of athletes competing for their countries. But coaches are free to work anywhere, and that's why you'll see Canadians helping rival countries win medals — and vice versa.

Canadians helping rival countries win medals, and vice versa

Jeremy Wotherspoon was a star speed skater for Canada and now coaches for the Norwegian national team. (Vincent Jannink/AFP/Getty Images)

Behind every successful Olympic athlete is a coach. You won't see them featured in ad campaigns or sponsorships, and they don't get medals. Most of them don't seek the limelight.

Despite the lack of recognition, those within the Canadian sport system know how much of a difference maker good coaching can be. It's not a stretch to say it's instrumental to Canada's international success. But it's also a scarce resource that requires education, experience and financial support in order to thrive.

The Own the Podium program has recognized this by devoting millions in funding to coaching initiatives in Canada. Interestingly, though, coaching isn't always best developed solely within our nation's borders.

Whereas the Olympic Games are built on the premise of athletes representing their countries, coaches are far less restricted. Canada's athletes are often coached by people from other countries while, on the flip side, Canadian coaches go abroad to help develop athletes for our rivals.

Coaching has truly become a globalized business.

"There is a limited number of jobs and I wasn't offered the same opportunity in Canada as I was in Australia," says former Canadian freestyle ski team member Cord Spero, who in six years as a coach Down Under has helped Australia's aerials program produce three Olympic medals.

Spero represents a truth in Olympic sport: medals aren't always entirely homegrown. It's become commonplace to recruit international coaches, especially when a sport isn't as prominent a part of the social fabric in the country that hires the coach as it is in the coach's home nation.

"International hires are important in sports like cycling that have a well-established, Euro-centric culture," says Jacque Landry, the chief technical officer and head coach at Cycling Canada.

"The sport and knowledge is engrained in them the same way hockey is ingrained in so many Canadians. The balance for us is trying to build the culture in Canada with them by establishing a high-skill program and hoping their knowledge permeates the system."

In and out

Landry knows from experience. He coached five years within the Canadian system before being headhunted by New Zealand. He fully understands the value of learning from other countries.  

"I gained a lot of knowledge that I was able to bring back to the Canadian system," he says.

Canadian Cord Spero, a former aerials athlete, is now coaching in Australia. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)
But, like many businesses built on human capital, investing in Canadian coaches carries the risk of those coaches walking out the door and taking their expertise with them to other countries. Some of Canada's best coaches are still working abroad. 

"When the opportunity arose to go to Norway and work with their [Canadian] coach Jeremy Wotherspoon, I knew I had to do it," says Canadian Olympic speed skater Gilmore Junio. "I felt like I needed to change things up and challenge myself in a new and uncomfortable environment if I wanted to give myself the best chance at the podium in Pyeongchang.
 
"It was with a coach that was my childhood idol and we already had a good relationship. I trusted him and his approach to skating and training. His experience within the Canadian system, combined with his coaching experiences in Germany and Norway, have really broadened the breadth of his speed skating knowledge and his approach to training."

Junio, Landry and Spero represent a growing reality in Olympic sport. The competition at the Games may be fuelled by nationalism, but the reality is a far more complex, globalized story. When the Olympics begin in a few weeks, we'll cheer our Canadian athletes who climb onto the podium. But our country's influence will go deeper than Canada's medal tally, and that's worth celebrating too.

"I was built in Canada, represented Canada as an athlete for more than a decade and then, as a coach, I was a successful Canadian on the world stage," says Spero. "I would hope that makes Canada proud of me."

About the Author

Deidra Dionne is Director, Business Affairs at Rogers Media. Her unique outlook on the business of sport stems from her experience as a two-time Olympian and Olympic medallist in freestyle skiing aerials, and from her education and experience as a lawyer in the sport and entertainment industry.

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