If an obsession with medals contributed to Canada’s safe-sport crisis, how will the country measure success in Paris?
At federal parliamentary committee hearings in recent months, MPs were told that the pressure on national sports organizations to produce medals and receive funding to do so contributed to toxic environments in which the welfare of athletes took second place.
A year out from the 2024 Summer Olympics, how Canada defines sporting excellence is in question.
The Canadian minister of sports, Pascale St-Onge, said that “it cannot be only about medals and podiums. We need to talk about the safety of the athletes and their overall well-being.”
What does this mean for the upcoming Olympics, where Canadian athletes will strive for the podium?
“If we create an environment where we give all athletes all the tools they need to succeed, and to do their best to show up to the proverbial starting line in the best shape of their lives, physically, mentally, physiologically, then we’re going to see great results for Team Canada on the medal table,” Canadian Olympic Committee chief executive David Shoemaker told The Canadian Press.
“We should not be ashamed of our ambition to create safe and healthy journeys for athletes at the Olympic Games. And we shouldn’t be shy about celebrating great Canadian achievements on the podium at the Olympics.
“I strongly believe that these two things are not mutually exclusive.”
How Canada measures sporting excellence is in transition, said Own The Podium chief executive Anne Merklinger.
“Sports, when done well, are incredibly valuable to our country,” she said.
The OTP was created prior to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, BC, to help athletes from the host country reach the podium.
The OTP provides funding recommendations to Sport Canada and provides technical expertise to national sport organizations.
“Our goal as an organization is to help every athlete go into competition knowing 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 never be satisfied with being good enough in these areas. Everyone learned this the hard way over the last two to three years with athletes coming forward and sharing their experiences. An issue of safe sport in our system is a very big issue.”
Canada is coming off one of its most successful Summer Olympics and has cleared a security hurdle of a different kind to get there.
Canadians claimed 24 medals – seven gold, six silver, 11 bronze – at the Tokyo Games postponed from 2020 to 2021 and held amid a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 virus.
Canada and Australia pulled out of 2020, citing security concerns, two days before the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement.
Canada remained more cautious about COVID-19 than many countries heading into the rescheduled Games.
Despite training restrictions and a lack of competition before Tokyo, the 24 medals were the most by a Canadian team in a non-boycotted Summer Olympics. Seven gold tied the most.
Sports executives drew a tough target for Tokyo because of the pandemic variables. Canada’s 11th-place finish among countries in total medals won would have achieved the 12th-best target set for the 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 that we’re going to adapt, we’re going to be resilient and we’re going to show up and perform our best.”
Safety and success going hand-in-hand may still be a viable message for Team Canada heading to Paris, but in a different context.
Calls continue for a national inquiry into the sport to identify and correct problems that have led to an avalanche of complaints and reports of abuse, mistreatment and harassment.
There’s also pressure to demonstrate to Canadian taxpayers — the biggest funder of high-performance sport at over $200 million a year — what they’re getting for that money.
National sports organizations rely heavily on the public purse to develop and train athletes for the international stage.
Canadians have an insatiable appetite to watch the Olympics. The Tokyo Olympics drew 28 million television viewers and 37 million broadcast views, according to rights holder CBC.
“It’s important that Canada does well on the world stage,” Merklinger said. “Sport is good when we do it right and athletes want to do well, at all levels of the system.”
The traditional quadrennial between Olympic Games was contracted to three years for Paris due to the postponement of Tokyo.
This may have extended careers for veteran athletes who thought a three-year track was less difficult than four.
“I’m feeling really good 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 championships.
“Four years is a really long time, and to have three years, one less year, is … I’m really happy about that.”
Beach volleyball player Melissa Humana-Paredes felt in the year after Tokyo that it was too early to turn her mind to Paris, but now she has wrapped her head around it.
“It’s coming too soon. It’s only a year away”, Humana-Paredes. “I feel like that fire hasn’t gone anywhere, so I think that’s a good thing.”
For those who competed in mostly empty venues in Tokyo, the chance to perform for Paris crowds that include their friends and family was another carrot to keep going.
Maggie Mac Neil, Kylie Masse, Penny Oleksiak and Summer McIntosh lead a strong women’s swim team in Paris.
Olympic sprint champion Andre De Grasse and reigning decathlon champion Damian Warner are the ones to watch on the track.
“Everyone is working hard right now. You have a platform. Now, it’s your time to go, perform, and my message to all athletes is also, primarily, to have fun. Never forget the fun part,” said Canada’s Chief of Mission, Bruny Surin.
“It’s your career. You represent Canada as best you can and be happy.”
The geopolitical drumbeat heading into Paris remains focused on Russia, with war replacing performance-enhancing doping as an IOC issue to navigate.
The curtain had barely fallen on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics when Russia, with Belarus cheering, invaded Ukraine.
While IOC president Thomas Bach initially asked the world sports community to avoid athletes from both countries, the IOC now wants to find a way to let some compete in Paris as neutrals without their country’s flag, anthem or colors.
“I kind of admire the philosophical approach that Thomas Bach is trying to take with this, that we’re inclusive and the athletes aren’t waging war and we shouldn’t be punishing the athletes for what the old farts decide,” said Dick Pound, who was a Canadian member of the IOC for 44 years.
“But this aspirational thing comes into huge head-on conflict with political realities.”
St-Onge remains adamant that Russians and Belarusians should be banned 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 that of the IOC.
“The position of the Canadian Olympic Committee is the same as that of Minister St-Onge and has been the same for 18 months, that as long as this fight is going on, we support the ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sports,” he said.
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