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Curt Harnett faces challenging times as Canada's chef de mission

As Curt Harnett assumes the duties of chef de mission for Team Canada, he also becomes the very public face of the Canadian Olympic movement, which is currently grappling with a distracting and potentially debilitating leadership crisis.

Integrity of Canadian Olympic Committee on thin ice

As Canadian Olympic Committee continues to deal with a debilitating leadership crisis, newly appointed chef de mission Curt Harnett finds himself in a tough spot. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

When translated to English, one of the meanings for the French word chef is boss or leader.

For all intents and purposes Olympic medallist and Canadian cycling legend, Curt Harnett, is the new boss of this country's 2016 Olympic effort. 

As he assumes the duties of chef de mission for Team Canada he also becomes the very public face of the Canadian Olympic movement, which is currently grappling with a distracting and potentially debilitating leadership crisis.

Harnett is in a tough spot.

A mere four months out from the Games in Rio de Janeiro, his predecessor, Olympic mogul skiing champion, Jean-Luc Brassard, has quit.

Brassard has since admitted he could no longer stomach the way the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) is dealing with the fallout from the resignation of its former president Marcel Aubut over allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.

"The COC will one day have to apply the Olympic values to themselves," Brassard said, via email, from Montreal. "It's a terrible decision to have to make but the athletes will be in excellent hands with Curt and that's the only thing that's important."

Integrity of COC threatened

The welfare of the athletes is not the only thing that's important…far from it. 

The integrity of the entire organization is also threatened in this instance and with it the public's faith in the Canadian Olympic movement. But in so dramatically stepping aside, Brassard has at least identified the pressing need for someone to lead the team onto the field of play, a role which he no longer felt he could fulfill.

As for Harnett, he's the logical choice to be the new boss and he knows it. 

He's a decorated Olympian who succeeded in leading the Pan American Games team to a highly successful experience last summer in Toronto.  As chef de mission for Team Canada at TO2015, Harnett helped the athletes and the Games themselves resonate in a substantial way with the public. It's generally acknowledged everyone involved exceeded expectations.

"The decision is a natural," Harnett said over the phone while walking his dog. "Both from an athlete and support perspective, 90 per cent of the team and mission staff heading to Rio were with us in Toronto. I've got a lot of work to do but I'm already on it."

Mark Tewksbury was Canada's chef de mission at the last summer Olympics in London four years ago. He believes, in spite of a difficult situation, Harnett is up to the challenge.

"As early as two years before the Games begin you have to, as chef de mission, start building relationships with the enormous community that is Team Canada," Tewksbury said from Montreal. 

"You have to bring together this disparate group of 300 or more athletes in the village and 300 more mission staff outside it, and then unite them in a hurry. He's already missed the head of delegation meeting which occurs a year out from the Games. This is where you start to protect your team. But in this situation we're blessed because Curt has been in this position recently. He will make the transition seamlessly."

Rio more complex

Harnett is well aware that he's facing a different animal this time around. Rio de Janeiro is not Toronto, and its complexities are myriad.

"Rio has its unique challenges and I don't think the movement has gone to a place which is on the verge of impeaching its president," he said philosophically. 

"But I believe the Olympics are big enough to realize successful Games.  My role is to be the lead delegate. To deliver on the needs of athletes and coaches so they can perform at their best. I need to engage the Canadian public on the purpose of the Games and the movement itself.  There is also a role to play in buffering the team from the distractions that can evolve on the journey to and at the Games themselves."

It sounds like Harnett has a firm grip on what his job entails.

Canada is one of a handful of countries that requires its chef de mission to be an Olympian. It's been the case since gold-medal diver Sylvie Bernier led the team at the 2008 Games in Beijing. 

Mark Tewksbury believes it's a must.

"Four categories are included in the chef de mission's job description.  They are leadership, mentorship, ambassadorship and being a cheerleader," Tewksbury said. "The right athlete can speak the language of the team, and thus gain a measure of respect."

In a strange coincidence, Harnett invoked the same sentiment as he summed up the daunting task before him with so little time before the Games begin.

"I've never even been to Rio and so I've got to hit the ground running," he admitted. "So now it's all hands on deck. This turn of events has made me respond as if I was still an athlete."

And in a time of crisis, with the Games on the line, who better than an athlete to be the new boss of the Canadian Olympic Team?

It's only natural.

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