A year out from Paris, safe sport crisis has Canada redefining sport success

Rosie MacLennan carries the Canadian flag during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (Matt Slocum/AP)

If an obsession with medals contributed to Canada’s safe sport crisis, how will the country measure success in Paris?

In federal parliamentary committee hearings in recent months, MPs were told the pressure on national sports organizations to produce medals, and get funding to do that, contributed to toxic environments in which athlete welfare took a back seat.

A year out from the 2024 Summer Olympics, how Canada defines sport excellence is in question.

Canadian sports minister Pascale St-Onge has said “it can’t only be about medals and podiums. We have to talk about the safety of athletes and their well-being as a whole.”

What does that mean for the next Olympic Games, where Canada’s athletes will strive for the podium?

“If we create an environment where we give all athletes all the tools that they need to succeed, and to do their best to show up at the proverbial start line in the best shape of their lives, physically, mentally, physiologically, we will then see great results for Team Canada on the medal table,” Canadian Olympic Committee chief executive officer David Shoemaker told The Canadian Press.

“We shouldn’t be shy about our ambition to create safe, healthy journeys for athletes to the Olympic Games. And we shouldn’t be shy about celebrating great Canadian accomplishments on the podium at the Olympic Games either.

“I’m a strong believer that those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

How Canada measures sport excellence is in transition, said Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger. 

“Sport, when it’s done well, is incredibly valuable for our country,” she said.

OTP was established before the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., to help get athletes from the host country on the podium. 

OTP provides funding recommendations to Sport Canada and provides technical expertise to national sports organizations.

“Our goal as an organization is to help every athlete get to the competition and know that they have done everything possible to achieve their goals in an environment that promotes and protects their psychological and physical health and safety,” Merklinger said.

“We can’t ever settle for being good enough in this areas. Everyone learned that the hard way over the last two to three years with athletes coming forward and sharing their experiences. One safe-sport issue in our system is one too many.”

Canada is coming off one of its most successful Summer Olympics, and cleared a safety hurdle of a different kind to achieve it.

Canadians claimed 24 medals — seven gold, six silver, 11 bronze — in Tokyo’s Games delayed from 2020 to 2021, and held amid a state of emergency, because of the COVID-19 virus.

Canada and Australia withdrew from 2020, citing safety concerns, two days before the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement.

Canada remained more COVID-19 cautious than many countries heading into the rescheduled Games.

Despite training restrictions and a lack of pre-Tokyo competition, 24 medals were the most by a Canadian team at a non-boycotted Summer Olympics. Seven gold equalled the most.

Sport leaders backed off a hard target for Tokyo because of pandemic variables. Canada’s rank of 11th among countries in total medals won would have hit the top-12 target set for previous Summer Olympics.

“I think the lessons Canadian athletes and Canadian teams have learned is that they can roll with the punches,” Shoemaker said. 

“I think the lesson from COVID is we will adapt, we will be resilient and we will show up and perform at our very best.”

Safety and success hand in hand may still be an applicable message for the Canadian team heading into Paris, but in a different context. 

Calls continue for a national inquiry into sport, in order to identify and rectify problems that have led to an avalanche of complaints and reports of abuse, maltreatment and harassment.

There’s also pressure to demonstrate to the Canadian taxpayer — the largest funder of high-performance sport at over $200 million annually — what they’re getting for that money.

National sport organizations rely heavily on the public purse to develop and train athletes for the international stage.

Canadians have a voracious appetite for watching Olympic Games. Tokyo’s Olympics drew 28 million television viewers and 37 million in streamed views, according to rightsholder CBC.

“It’s important for Canada to do well on the world stage,” Merklinger said. “Sport is good when we do it the right way and athletes want to do well, at all levels of the system.”

The traditional quadrennial between Olympics Games contracted to three years for Paris because of Tokyo’s postponement. 

That may have extended careers for veteran athletes who felt a three-year runway was less onerous than four. 

“I’m feeling really good right now and having only three years between each Olympics is good for me,” said diver Pamela Ware, who recently won a bronze medal at the world championship. 

“Four years is a really long time, and having three years, a year less, is … I’m really happy about it.”

Beach volleyball player Melissa Humana-Paredes felt in the year following Tokyo that it was too soon to turn her mind to Paris, but she’s wrapped her head around it now.

“It’s coming very fast. It’s only a year away,” Humana-Paredes. “I feel like that fire hasn’t really gone away anywhere, so I think that’s a good thing.”

For those who competed in largely empty venues in Tokyo, the chance to perform for Paris crowds that include their friends and family was another carrot to continue.

Maggie Mac Neil, Kylie Masse, Penny Oleksiak and Summer McIntosh lead a powerful women’s swim team into Paris. 

Olympic champion sprinter Andre De Grasse and reigning decathlon champion Damian Warner are ones to watch at the track.

“Everybody’s working hard right now. You have a platform. Now, it’s your time to go, to perform and my message to all the athletes is also, mainly, have fun. Don’t ever forget the fun part,” Canada’s chef de mission Bruny Surin said.

“It’s your career. You represent Canada the best as you can and be happy.”

The geopolitical drumbeats heading into Paris remain centred on Russia, with war supplanting performance-enhancing doping as the IOC’s issue to navigate.

The curtain had barely fallen on Beijing’s Winter Olympics in 2022 when Russia, with Belarus cheerleading, invaded Ukraine.

While IOC president Thomas Bach initially urged the world sports community to shun athletes from both countries, the IOC now wants to find a way to let some compete in Paris as neutrals without flag, anthem or their country’s colours.

“I sort of admire the philosophical approach that Thomas Bach is trying to take with this, that we’re inclusionary and the athletes are not making war and we shouldn’t be punishing athletes for what the old farts decide,” said Dick Pound, who was a Canadian IOC member for 44 years. 

“But that aspirational thing comes into immense head-on conflict with the political realities.”

St-Onge remains firm that Russians and Belarusians must be barred from competing in Paris.

“Our government reiterates to the IOC the importance of banning Russians and Belarusians from the 2024 Olympic Games,” she said in a tweet. “Canada stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.”

The COC agrees, Shoemaker said, even if that stance differs somewhat from the IOC’s.

“The Canadian Olympic Committee’s position is the same as Minister St-Onge’s and it’s been the same for 18 months, that for so long as this war is ongoing, we support the ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sport, period” he stated.

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