‘Money for medals’ scrutinized despite strong results for Canada

Penny Oleksiak pictured outside Monarch Park Collegiate, her high school. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

CALGARY — Canada proved in 2016 it could compete with the world’s top summer sport countries, equalling its best showing at a non-boycotted Summer Olympics with 22 medals at the Rio Games.

Four gold was the most for Canada at a Summer Olympics since the country won seven in 1992, and after falling short of the goal of a top-12 finish in the overall medal count in both 2008 and 2012, Canada finally cracked the top 10 in Brazil (10th).

Despite the success, the system that helped put Canadians on the podium is under scrutiny.

Canadian taxpayers are the largest investor in their high performance athletes to the tune of almost $200 million annually.

Own The Podium makes funding recommendations directing $70 million — about $6 million of it comes from the Canadian Olympic Committee — to sport federations whose athletes demonstrate medal potential.

The strategy is called "targeted excellence" and is defined as identifying "a subset of athletes and/or teams that have a high probability of attaining stated desired Olympic and Paralympic performance results, and to provide them with focused support and funding to attain those results."

In other words, the money and resources are doled out based on the ability to produce medals.

The Department of Canadian Heritage, with Sport Canada under its umbrella, is currently reviewing targeted excellence among other aspects of the sport system.

Own The Podium has its critics as the organization whose opinion holds sway in determining which sport federations get how much targeted excellence money.

Some federations have received a small sliver of that funding pie, or sometimes, none at all.

Under pressure to win medals, coaches and high performance directors have made controversial decisions at Olympic Games in the makeup of men’s bobsled crews and rowing boats.

OTP works with significantly more taxpayer money now than the $23 million per year pre-2010.

The organization also oversees a sport science and technology program, monitors sport federations’ high-performance programs and has established a program of identifying and developing the next generation of Olympians and Paralympians.

The government decided it’s time to look at whether the sport system is getting desired results affordably and if it is adapting to changing needs.

"Fourteen years ago we thought this was a good idea, this was the path and this was a cutting-edge approach to high-performance sport internationally," Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough told The Canadian Press in 2016.

"So like any coach will tell you we need to keep reviewing the game plan. Medal performances say how well we’ve done under this particular plan, but maybe there’s a different direction we need to go to achieve even better results next time."

OTP was established five years out from the 2010 Winter Games and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., to get the host country’s athletes on the podium.

Anne Merklinger, OTP’s third chief executive officer following Roger Jackson and Alex Baumann, believes Canada’s results in the Olympics and Paralympics in the last 11 years are an argument for the targeted approach.

But that doesn’t mean change shouldn’t happen, she added.

"The government of Canada’s decision to deploy a targeted excellence approach has delivered in spades," Merklinger said. "The data speaks for itself. It’s been incredibly successful."

"That said, can we improve? That’s the value of this review. Own The Podium has been tasked with delivering the targeted approach, but how does the whole system get better? That’s the kind of thoughtful dialogue I would say needs to happen once the report is tabled."

The host country won 14 gold medals, which was a record for any country at a single Winter Games, and ranked third in the overall medal count in 2010 with 26 medals.

The stated objective for 2010 was to win more medals than any other country.

The goal was the same four years later in Sochi, where Canada ranked fourth with 25 medals, including 10 gold.

Canada is a winter sport power. The country ranked second in world championship medals in 2016 with 18 behind Germany at 19, according to OTP statisticians.

Canada has also won more medals to start this 2016-17 World Cup winter season (73) than any other country, OTP said.

Gains in summer sport have taken longer.

Canada’s one gold medal among 19 won at the 2012 Summer Games in London was unremarkable when compared with three gold in 19 four years earlier in Beijing.

While Canada remains a top-three country in the Winter Paralympic Games, the country has lost ground in the Summer Games.

Other nations are more putting effort and resources into their summer para-sport athletes than they were a decade ago.

Canada dropped from 50 medals to 31 to 29 over the last three Summer Paralympics.

The company hired to gather data encompassing pre-2010 to the Rio Games is expected to complete its work in January, a Heritage department spokesperson told The Canadian Press in an email.

Findings will be submitted to Sport Canada, which will in turn make recommendations to Qualtrough in 2017.

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