Amber Hildebrandt - Monday Feb. 24, 2014 07:03 ET

Own the Podium sets sights on 2018, 2022 Olympic medallists

Challenges ahead as Canada seeks to keep up with rival countries

Team Canada marches during the closing ceremony
Members of Team Canada march during the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics on Sunday. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Despite Canada's many successes at the Sochi Games, it fell short of its own admittedly audacious goals, a stumble that's highlighted the escalating medals race between nations and reinvigorated critics of Own the Podium.

“We set a new bar in Vancouver for Canada and for other nations,” said Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own The Podium, a non-profit that exists to help Canadian athletes with medal potential win. “Other nations are chasing Canada and we need to continue to find ways that we can improve high-performance sport in our country.”

At the 2010 Vancouver Games, Canada racked up a record 26 overall medals, including a record 14 golds. This time, the country won 25 medals, including 10 golds.

That put Canada in fourth place in the overall standings, its lowest position since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and dropped it from the top gold medal spot to third. 

It also failed to reach the bold goals set out by the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own The Podium, including exceeding Vancouver’s 26 medals or even winning the total medal count. Russia managed that feat with 33.

Officials say they aren't disappointed. 

With countries investing more into the so-called global medals race, the gap is closing between the top-tier nations, said Merklinger. That's forcing them to rejig their strategy by looking further into the future.

Own the Podium has already turned its attention to pinpointing podium potential athletes for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games and even the 2022 Games.

But the organization is planning an extensive debrief with sporting groups to analyse the Sochi performance.

Some sporting organizations that fell short of expectations – like snowboarding, alpine and cross-country skiing – are already expressing concerns about cuts to funding. Others are questioning the short-term approach taken by Own The Podium in the first place.

Merklinger said it's too early to know what sports hold the best medal possibilities, but assures organizations that it looks to future potential, not past performance.  

Costly games

Own The Podium will also scrutinize other nations, some of which, like Great Britain and Russia, are adopting similar programs. Russia reigned supreme over both the gold and overall medal tallies, with 13 and 33 respectively. 

“It costs more and more money just to stay in the same place because other countries are putting so much money into attempting to win Olympic medals,” warned Peter Donnelly, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies.

When it comes to costs, Own The Podium actually spent less in Vancouver per medal won – $2.6 million – than the $3.2 million in Sochi. That doesn’t include private sponsorship or other funds that sports receive.

The single costliest medal was the unexpected bronze won by Jan Hudec in alpine’s super-G. It was the only win in alpine, a sport given the third highest amount by Own The Podium at $7.2 million. But it ended Canada’s 20-year drought in the sport.

Freestyle skiing – which received a tenth of Own The Podium's $80 million, the biggest portion – proved to be the most successful sport, with seven medals.

“We had the best coaches, trainers, physios,” Mike Riddle, who won silver in men’s halfpipe, said on the weekend. “Access to the best facilities made all the difference.”

Overall, Canada spent $15 million on sports that didn’t get medals – including cross-country skiing, skeleton, luge, biathlon and ski jumping.

Then again, as Donnelly notes, predicting medal wins is a "fool's game."

"It's sport," said Donnelly. "On any given day, anything can happen."

And as Dan Mason, a University of Alberta sports policy professor, notes, in the end, “not every medal is worth the same” in the eyes of Canadians. The gold medal domination in both women’s and men’s hockey and curling counts for more when Canadians assess a Game's success.

Mason adds that a study he did of the Vancouver Games found that Canadians were quite willing for taxpayer funds to go toward programs focused on securing medals. 

Medal fever

However, Donnelly questions Own The Podium’s singular focus on aiding only those athletes with a podium chance. It's an approach adopted 10 years ago from the Australians, where it's come under criticism and re-evaluation.

He points to Norway as an alternate example. The small country of five million people performed remarkably well, hitting second place for golds and third for overall medals. That placed it side-by-side with powerhouses such as the U.S. and Russia. 

In Norway, sporting groups are funded based not only on high-performance athletes with medal capabilities but also on grassroots participation.

As a result, “they have one of the most active, healthy sporting populations in the entire world,” he said. That broad participation in sports creates a large pool to pull from.

Merklinger acknowledged that in the past 18 months, Own The Podium has refocused its efforts on longer-term goals in part because of issues finding the next medallist.

“Our athlete pool has flat-lined so we knew that we needed to change our approach in order to increase that pool for the longer term,” she said.

The potential for funding stability should be a relief to some organizations, frustrated by Own The Podium’s fickle attention span.

Ski jumping – which saw the women’s debut in Sochi – got a last-minute cut to its funding the year before the Games, sending the sports organization scrambling to make ends meet and forcing it to cut two paid staff positions.

“We were disappointed by their decision to not fund us leading into an Olympic year in the first year our sport was in the Olympics,” said Curtis Lyon, the chairman of Ski Jumping Canada.

Ski jumping saw one of the largest percentage increases in funding from Vancouver to Sochi, but it’s among the lowest funded sports by Own The Podium in dollar figures.

Lyon hopes change is on the horizon with Peter Judge, the lead of the successful freestyle ski team, who is slated to take over as head of Own The Podium’s winter sports in March.

“We’re hoping that there’s a bit of a shift towards helping sports develop into podium potential, not just coming in or out at the last second with money. Or giving money at the last second,” said Lyon.

Whatever happens in the next four years, it's certain, as Merklinger said, "there's a lot of work to be done.

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