Rio Olympic 2016·Analysis

Canada's success in Rio comes at a price

By many measures, the Rio Olympics were a great success for Canada. But that success, largely the product of the Own the Podium funding strategy, can come with hidden costs.

Funding for medal hopefuls can leave others out in the cold

Penny Oleksiak, right, and the women's 4x200m freestyle relay team show off their bronze medals. Canadian swimmers earned six medals in Rio. That haul is partly the result of a funding plan that heavily favours athletes with the best chance of reaching the podium. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports

Some of the most iconic Canadian images of the Rio Games were of our athletes on the podium, standing among the top three in the world in their chosen craft.

Canadians understood the thrill of winning gold when they listened to the joy in wrestler Erica Wiebe's voice.

"I love this sport and I never thought I'd be an Olympic champion, but today I had my best day. It's amazing," she said.

These victories — spelled out in gold, silver and bronze — are easy to measure. But what about heroic and inspiring 10th- and eighth- and fourth-place finishes? Watching 28-year-old Melissa Bishop's riveting fourth-place run in the women's 800-metre final — in which she set a new Canadian record — it didn't seem like she had "lost" anything, despite her own disappointment.

"It's really kind of hard to describe this right now," said Bishop right after the race. "This is what we work for for a decade. And to be that close... this is tough."

In adding up and evaluating all of these efforts and results, the inevitable end-of-Olympics questions are asked: How did we do? And what does it mean? It depends on who you ask and how success is measured.

Without examining any of the numbers, it feels like this was a good Olympics for Canada. There were lots of good stories and many new faces. It seemed each day delivered at least one feel-good narrative. As one long-time Olympics watcher put it, this wasn't a "panic" Olympics for Canada. There's no talk of post-mortem summits or calls to blow up our national sport system.

Return on investment

Going into these Games, Canada set its total medal goal at 19. A top-12 finish in the overall medal standings was also desired.

Those numbers came from Own the Podium — the agency tasked with funnelling millions in government funding to athletes and teams with the best chance of winning medals. In 2016 alone, the agency 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).

OTP's stated goal is "for Canada to be a world leader in high-performance sport at the Olympics." By that measure, Rio was a success. Canadian athletes surpassed both goals set by OTP, collecting 22 medals to finish in 10th place, sandwiched between Italy and South Korea.

"Relative to the size of our country, the population of our country and the investment we are putting into high-performance sport, I would definitely say our athletes and coaches are delivering far beyond many other nations," says Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own the Podium.

With a population of about 35 million, Canada's $120-million investment works out to roughly three and a half dollars per person. Put another way, those 22 medals cost about $5.5 million each.

Expensive glory, but better than other comparable nations. Australia, with a population of 24 million, spent a whopping $333 million in the four years leading up to Rio. It did end up winning 29 medals, but they cost more than $11 million each.

Canada also spends less per capita on summer sport investment than Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Left behind

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. It also means many teams and athletes can be left behind.

"Every medal is an absolute battle. The depth of competition in the Olympic Games is getting deeper and deeper, stronger and stronger, and the spread of medals across nations is getting wider," Merklinger says.

"When we analyze the competitive program in the Olympic Games, often there will be some events for females where the depth of the competition is a little shallower relative to the men."

Swimming and cycling received some of the largest OTP payouts heading into Rio, and multiple members of both teams reached the podium.

But the strategy doesn't always lead to the podium. Canada's rowers were some of the best-funded athletes heading into Rio, but produced only one medal.

There were some surprising performers in the pool and on the track, but every medal Canada won came from a sport OTP identified as having medal potential. No team or athlete defied the funding odds and found the podium through sheer grit and determination.

And that's where critics take issue with OTP's "winners only" strategy. What about the men's volleyball team that reached the quarter-finals in Rio despite receiving no extra OTP funding in the four years leading up to the Games? And would Canadian boxers have fared better if they had gotten a bigger piece of the pie?

We may never know. Once OTP deems a team or athlete not medal-worthy and funds it accordingly, it is very difficult to stay competitive. And even harder to get back to the point where a medal is possible and funding once again flows.

Pyramid plan

Longtime Olympic observer and University of Toronto professor Bruce Kidd says spending and Olympic success are undeniably linked. But he believes the number of medals won can't be the only arbiter of success. He says the OTP strategy could actually be detrimental to Canada's long-term athletic growth. 

Kidd would like to see an amount similar to OTP funding directed to increasing participation in sports at the grassroots level.

"They only focus on those athletes in the last part of their careers who have a chance to win and make the podium at the Olympics," Kidd says. "As a democratic country that values opportunity for everybody, we've got to continue our effort to broaden and improve the base."

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

"The ones tasked with [overseeing high-performance sports] in Canada are increasingly obliged to fund the top-level athletes, making sure they have anything they need to get on the podium. The bottom of the pyramid is underfunded."

Both Kidd and Hall say the desire to select and nurture athletes with the goal of winning medals may actually backfire going forward. Hall would like to see "more bodies in boats."

"The more people you have participating in sport, the more talent you've got in the system," Hall insists. "If you can fill up the bottom of the pyramid, more kids will cycle to the top. Right now we are missing out on talent by making it too narrow, too difficult to excel in sports."

Kidd adds that the current model means Canada's medallists — especially on the female side — "do not reflect the nature of the female population of Canada."

"The data shows the number of people participating [in sports] is dropping and increasingly those who make it to the level where they can be supported, with few exceptions, come from the upper middle class."

None of this appears to be set to change. Canada is feeling good about its athletes, about the success they have enjoyed in Rio against the world's best.

OTP priorities are already set for the next Winter Olympics, in 2018, and beyond — podium potential predicted years ahead of time.

This data-based funding will likely elevate Canada's place in the global arena. It will also ratchet up expectations and pump up medal-count predictions

But as Hall puts it: "We need to ask ourselves, why are these medal counts important?"


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