Road To The Olympic Games


Own the Podium changes force Canadian sports, athletes to adapt

Developing the next Canadian Olympic medallists is a ruthless process that involves a tactical approach that may seem "un-Canadian" to some observers. But it's the only way to get ahead, according to top sport scientists.

Analytics, ruthless approach key components of finding next stars

Santo Condorelli, one of Canada's top swimmers, is part of a Canadian program that is dropping support of athletes that don't show improvements. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

What happens when you have less money than you need?

You can cut back, scrounge for more, or create greater returns with what you have.

Canadian sport leaders, with the plain goal of Olympic or Paralympic medals, are trying to be savvy by doing the latter.

It starts with Own the Podium (OTP), the agency that helps divvy up the roughly $66 million in annual funding (at the end of 2015), mostly from the government. After the London Olympics, OTP did two things: it ratcheted up merit-based funding and began focusing the next generation group, five to eight years from their crowning moment.

"There's no forecast of increased financial resources so we need to be smarter," says Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium.

According to its website, OTP gives a lot of money to sports with single or multiple medal potential at the upcoming games. Others get shorter commitments, or nothing at all.

Here are some examples for the four years (quadrennial) before Rio 2016:

  • Rowing — $13 million 
  • Track and field — $9 million 
  • Women's soccer — $6.9 million 
  • Beach volleyball — $0

Obviously, not everyone is happy. "It's a bit annoying when you see other sports get money," said Steve Anderson, beach volleyball head coach. He saw the big zero as a challenge. "If Own the Podium says we have to get medal results then let's build a program that justifies them giving us money."

Largely to the credit of the players (and their own bank accounts), there are now three Canadian beach volleyball teams consistently ranked in the top 10 in the world.

At the 2012 London Olympics, OTP realized the Canadian talent pool had dwindled. It wasn't hard to see the impact. The lone gold medal in London was Rosie MacLennan's victory in trampoline. It was Canada's lowest total since our Montreal Olympics in 1976 when the country didn't win any gold.

There are warning signs in winter sports too. "When we look at the data from Sochi our pool of podium potential athletes is declining," said Merklinger. This is bad news for a cold-weather nation.

The changes since the London Games are meant to "bet on the best shot," a strategy that extends down the line. OTP wagers on sports, the sports wager on athletes.

Gold medal profile

Sports are working on two tools to help them choose the next generation.

First, there is the flashy "Gold Medal Profile," to use OTP's own terminology.

Picture it like the back of a Marvel trading card, with ratings for things like strength, agility, and intellect for each superhero.

"It is very science-based. What are the physiological, technical, tactical, anatomical characteristics that are linked to that profile," said Merklinger.

"There's a dizzying number of things that could contribute to a gold medal profile," said Leo Thornley, the Director of Sport Science for the Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic. He works primarily with canoe and kayak athletes, and it helps to have Olympic champions named Adam van Koeverden to study.

Then there is the "Podium Pathway," made by chronologically mapping the results of all-stars. "If we're looking at someone who was a world champion, how did they progress over time," explained Paul Dorotich, a sport analytics advisor for OTP.

"We have to understand the sport, every facet of the sport," says Thornley.

Ruthless approach

The tradition in Canada is to encourage participation perhaps born from our culture of inclusion. Supporting only certain athletes and leaving the rest out is much more ruthless than we've ever been.  

"In a fair, just society everybody is given opportunity but in high performance sport it's elitist," said John Atkinson, high performance director for Swimming Canada.

In 2014, swimming dramatically flipped their funding rules by investing in athletes based on the likelihood of future success. For example, if a swimmer is ranked higher but not improving or too old based performance data they may receive less funding than a younger athlete ranked lower.

"There is a will," said Atkinson, "We have the opportunity within swimming to start doing things that are good for Canada, not copying what the US, Australia, Japan or Europe do but finding the right model for Canada."

Atkinson, and others, say it's early days for the post-2012 changes. The impact on Olympic and Paralympic medal counts aren't predicted to show until 2024.

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