Anne Merklinger on Canada's Olympic medal hopes, Own the Podium
'We're heading into these Games in Pyeongchang with our best medal potential ever'
Canada is a much more proud, bold and confident country, in the eyes of Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger, since its winter athletes won 26 medals and a record 14 gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Canadians reached the podium another 25 times four years later — albeit at a Winter Games in Sochi, Russia that had added 12 more events. Given those results, Merklinger believes OTP — the federal government's high-performance program with a medal-targeted funding approach that has received some criticism — continues to work years after it was created in 2005.
"There's nothing I like more than seeing the Canadian flag raised at the podium and to sing the national anthem," says Merklinger, who enjoyed a distinguished swimming career in the late 1970s and early '80s before becoming one of Canada's foremost curlers in the 1990s. "That's what I wake up for every day.
"Canada wants to win. We celebrate as a country when we send an astronaut to the moon or when we win the Nobel Peace Prize, just as we celebrate when Canadian athletes win medals, and we don't make any apologies for that."
CBC Sports spoke with Merklinger about her medal expectations for Canada at the upcoming Olympics in Pyeongchang, how OTP has evolved and whether it plans to target more funding for mixed-gender sports.
CBC Sports: International data analytics company Gracenote predicts Canada will finish third overall with 33 medals in Pyeongchang. What are your expectations?
Anne Merklinger: We're heading into these Games with our best medal potential ever. The greatest performance for us would be to win [our] most medals ever, [topping] Vancouver. Germany has had an extremely strong four years heading into Pyeongchang and is clearly the leading nation. Second, third and fourth is a very close battle with Canada, the United States and Norway. Winning more medals and improving on what we did in Sochi is our focus now.
CBC: What notable progression has been made to get Own the Podium better positioned to help more athletes, coaches and national sport organizations develop a path to the podium?
AM: Finding a way to the podium for more sports is an important change to how we operate as an organization and we have embraced that challenge. We're hiring technical staff that will now be able to work with those sports that may not have medal potential now, but we're working with them to help strengthen their program and find a pathway to the podium. As for providing more secure funding year over year, we've been able to provide funding recommendations that are locked in for four years.
CBC: What changes have you made to OTP to make it sustainable for the next generation of athletes?
AM: We saw, for the first time after the 2012 London Summer Olympics and [Winter Games] in Sochi [in 2014] that the number of top-five and -eight performances at those Games started to dip, so that was a red flag for us. We needed to invest deeper in the athlete pathway to sustain the opportunity to win medals over the longer term.
The No. 1 priority within the next-generation initiative is more full-time quality coaches working with athletes five to eight years away from a medal result, not only those already exhibiting medal potential. This will definitely lead to a sustained improvement in medal performance.
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CBC Sports: Is OTP planning to target more funding for mixed-gender sports, for example curling, triathlon and table tennis, which seem to be the wave of the future?
AM: Canada's had tremendous success in the new events, so any new event is a strategic opportunity for us as a country, but as I mentioned [targeted funding] is only where there's evidence of medal potential, otherwise we're not providing an investment recommendation.
CBC Sports: Does OTP target funding for the development of female coaches, who are in short supply?
AM: The Canadian Olympic Committee recently provided $5.2 million over the quadrennial to warrant a coaching-enhancement program, and a priority within that program is to advance quality female coaches. It's a gap we identified in Canada. We need more and better coaches, male or female, across our country in every sport.
CBC Sports: Can you explain your continued relationship with national sport organizations in which OTP reps are present for team selection meetings and to sign off on proposed criteria?
AM: We provide guidance … so they are ahead of the game [in] developing and posting of the criteria, that it's transparent and thoughtful. But at the end of the day, the national sport organization owns that criteria. Any disputes around selection criteria can be a distraction for sports as they head into the Olympic and Paralympic Games, so we're really a resource to ask questions about guidance and support. We'll often refer them to experts in the development of the selection criteria to make sure they're mitigating any potential distraction or dispute.
CBC Sports: What about there being a sanction of losing funding if the national sport organizations do not comply?
AM: That's not our role as an organization. The sport organizations are responsible and accountable to the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee for their selection criteria.
We're a technical agency that provides technical guidance and support. Yes, an important part of our mandate is to provide investment recommendation, but the funding partners can approve or reject. What's important is we develop relationships with the national sport organizations and become respected as a performance partner.