John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


In Defence of Own the Podium

Wednesday was Canada’s best day for Olympic medals, with the teams of Kaillie Humphries/Heather Moyes and Helen Upperton/Shelley-Ann Brown winning gold and silver in a 1-2 punch in women’s two-person bobsleigh. The women's 5,000 metre speed skating relay team earned a silver medal. Adding to the medal haul was Clara Hughes, who earned  her sixth career Olympic medal, a bronze in 5000m long track speed skating.

Although Team Canada’s 7-3 thrashing of the Russian Federation grabbed all the headlines, it was a banner day for Canada’s less glamorous Olympic sports that may have helped justify the Canadian Olympic Committee’s controversial Own the Podium program, just as it appears to be on its last legs.

Designed to give Canada the highest medal count at the 2010 Vancouver games, the Own the Podium program increased spending on winter Olympic sports by $21-million annually over the course of five years, with money coming from provincial and federal governments as well as private sponsors like Bell Canada. The goal was for Canada to earn a total of 35 podium finishes.

This plan has drawn criticism from all corners. Other countries (particularly the British media) have described it as an “un-Canadian” initiative. Apparently, it’s against the national character to be competitive in anything other than men’s hockey. A proposterous claim given that the Olympics, by definition, is about pushing the envelope and achieving new heights.

At the same time, some domestic media were unhappy that so much public funding - $118 million in total – was being spent on athletics when it could be applied to pressing issues like education, health care or the flagging economy.

As of this writing, Canada has stepped on to the podium 15 times, and might finish in the top three in men and women’s hockey, men and women’s curling and speed skating. Realistically, Canada will finish with around 20 medals, just shy of their 2006 Turin total of 24, and well short of Own the Podium’s stated goal of 35. On Monday, the COC announced that it was no longer aiming to top the medal tables at Vancouver.

In other words, CEO Roger Jackson and his staff have disappointed just about everybody, except the athletes.

Although the program has not met expectations, I think that in the long run it will make Canada into a more formidable sporting nation. At long last, Canadian athletes are getting the support they so richly deserve, allowing them to finally put their best foot forward in international competition.

Their performance at the Vancouver games will serve as an inspiration to Canada’s youth, spawning a new generation of world-class athletes. Yes, the money could have been spent on other projects, but giving Canadian children role models to look up to is certainly a worthy pursuit.

Further, this initiative is just catching Canada up to the rest of the world. In many cases, the athletes from other nations in the winter Olympics are members of the military.

For example, Tuffy LaTour, the coach of Canadian men’s bobsleigh team, is a retired army sergeant from the United States who competed with the American military’s sledding team.

Dan Humphries, the husband of Canadian gold medalist Kaillie Humphries, and a member of Canada’s four-man bobsleigh team, was originally a member of the British Army’s slidding team.

Heck, Finland won the Winter War against the Soviet Union by their superior biathlon skills.

Canada, with its significantly smaller population and military complex, needs a boost to its athletics programs, and Own the Podium is it.

Just as the Calgary Olympics created a home base for Canadian sports, the combination of the Vancouver games and Own the Podium will start a new golden age in the Canadian Olympic movement. It appears as though most of Own the Podium's sponsors, both public and private, will stop funding after the closing ceremonies this weekend, which would be a shame.

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  1. Interestingly, the program has been more successful with women athlethes. 13 of 17 medals so far are from women. This is from the CTV website (when it was 12 of 16):

    “That’s 80 per cent of Canada’s medal haul so far – not bad considering that women make up just 43 per cent of the 206-member team. Female athletes got about half of the Own the Podium funding.

    Women’s dominance of the medal count exceeds even the previous high-podium mark of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, where Canadian female athletes won three-quarters (of a much smaller number) of the nation’s Olympic medals.”

    So, if men had been doing their part (ie- 50% of the medals, which is more than reasonable as they make up more than 50% of the team), we would be at 26 medals- much closer to the OTP goal. This would also put us tied for second place with Germany.

  2. @Katy

    You’re absolutely right. The female members of the Canadian delegation have done their bit. One of the numbers that OTP threw around was that they wanted to win medals in 50% of their events. The men representing Canada have definitely let the side down.

    I wonder why female athletes have done so much better?

  3. I do believe that Sydney, Australia had their own huge massive funding expenditures for the 6-8 years leading up to the 2000 games just so they’d show well… we’re not the first to do it, and certainly won’t be the last. I think you’re right that it’ll promote sport, and to me it means we’ll own the podium, just not necessarily right now.

    I have always thought it unfair, the amounts given to Cdn athletes to compete has generally been significantly lower than the amounts US athletes received, given their access to bigger sponsors, and better funding. I don’t know if it’s changed yet, but Canadian universities and colleges weren’t able to offer more than a paltry amount to athletes while americans were able to offer all manner of full and partial scholarships to promising talent. About time we supported them!

    An “un-Canadian” iniative? What do the Brits know about us? They mostly look down their noses at us and compare us to the Yanks, and think while we’re still low class, we’re just a little more polite than the US. I do believe they were impressed with our awesome support of all athletes and hope they can bring some of our spirit back to London…

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