Road To The Olympic Games

Report recommends change in funding for Canada's Olympians, Paralympians

Canada’s Own the Podium (OTP) has been successful at developing winners but has left many athletes behind, according to a new review commissioned by Sport Canada.

Many athletes have been left behind, according to Sport Canada review

Carla Qualtrough, the minister of sport and persons with disabilities, announced $5 million in new annual funding for aspiring athletes in Olympic and Paralympic sports on Friday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Canada's Own the Podium (OTP) has been successful at developing winners but has left many athletes behind, according to a new review commissioned by Sport Canada.

The review, prepared by Ottawa consultants Goss Gilroy, also says more needs to be done developing Canada's future Olympians.

The review was based on hundreds of surveys and interviews with coaches, athletes and other involved in the Olympic movement.

"We need to take a longer-term approach to high-performance sport in Canada," Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough told CBC.

"We have had great success with targeting sports and having a targeted excellence approach but if we really want to sustain the podium results and the ongoing success we've achieved we need to look at the next generation of athletes."

Own the Podium was introduced in the years leading up to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.  OTP's stated goal then and now is "for Canada to be a world leader in high-performance sport and the Olympics."

The allocation of money to Canadian athletes is decided by answering a simple question: do they have a chance to finish in the top three in the world? That means identifying events like swimming and cycling where Canada can win multiple medals and funding them accordingly in the years leading up to the Olympics.

For example in 2016, OTP doled out nearly $30 million to summer athletes — part of a nearly $120-million package in the four years leading up to Rio (and excluding Paralympic funding).

According to the new report, the strategy of picking winners has been successful.  

"Olympic sports receiving targeted excellence funding have won almost all of the Olympic Games and world championship medals won by Canadians over the London and Rio quads 92 per cent of the medals in summer sports and 100 per cent of the medals in winter sports," the report said.

Money well spent

Qualtrough said OTP has been money well spent.

"You are never going to hear me say we shouldn't invest in high-performance sport because I honestly believe that the impact that winning medals has on Canadians, on our kids and on the pride of our country, it can't be quantified," Qualtrough said.

Canadian canoeist Thomas Hall, who reached the Olympic podium in 2008, and was an early recipient of OTP funding, said he didn't get into sports to win a medal and has become a critic of the OTP's medal-focused strategy.

"Frankly I don't think picking winners is very difficult. When you look at the winners we are picking, they are in sports where we've been winning medals for a very long time," Hall said.

The bigger issue, as both Hall and the report points out, are the athletes and teams who don't receive targeted funding.

The report said many non-targeted athletes find themselves in a "Catch 22."

"Development by non-targeted sports and athletes is extremely difficult without targeted excellence funding. Non-targeted athletes often have to self-finance their participation, and are sometimes unable to continue because of the cost," according to the report. "Loss of funding can have psychological and physical impacts, such as injuries taking longer to heal because of limited access to sport medicine services."

The loss of funding can also paralyze a team or athlete.

"One of the sports that had lost funding described the impact as being "bombed back to the stone age," the reports said. "In one case, having had one of the best head coaches in Canada, with the loss of funding, the coach left."

Hall questions whether the road to Olympic success for a non-targeted athlete actually exists.

"There isn't one. If you are in there, and you already winning and you are in a sport that often wins that's one thing," Hall said. But if you are in a sport that's never won a medal, that hasn't gotten support, you are way behind [and] that's a real problem."

The government acknowledges the conundrum.

"The ideal for me is that non-targeted sports will be able to look into the future and be able to identify a path to becoming targeted," Qualtrough said.

'Position to be targeted'

But there is no new money coming for sports like volleyball and water polo, both currently cut out of the funding pie.

Instead Qualtrough said the "OTP can help advise non-targeted sports so they can increase their technical capacity to be in a position to be targeted."

Hall says this approach is a good start, but more needs to be done.

"We can't ever get passed where we got in Rio unless we branch out to other sports. It won't happen by continuing to fund sports where we have traditionally won medals."

Instead, Hall and many Olympians who participated in this review say there needs to be a greater balance between targeted excellence and sport development funding.

In 2015, the government announced the NextGen program, aimed at focusing on future high-performance athletes. It has yet to be formally launched.

"Olympic medals don't get kids active. It takes a lot more than a medal. Sure there might be a short-term blip in participation rates in swimming or athletics," Hall said.

 "The way to reconcile things is to create systems built on getting as many kids active as possible, which will result in more kids being involved at later ages. The reality is the number of kids participating in sport in Canada is dropping yearly and without having more kids in the pipeline we won't have as many potential medal winners competing for Canada."

About the Author

Jamie Strashin

Reporter

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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