A lack of vision

I read a CBC article yesterday, called “Podium disowned, but hope persists.” What’s that about, I thought to myself. So I started reading:

So that’s it.

The culmination of five years of funding and training under the ambitious Own the Podium program is upon us and, after 11 tough days at the Vancouver Winter Games, the Canadian Olympic Committee has admitted its goal of winning the most medals is out of reach.

What? I’ve certainly heard of the program to improve the performance of our athletes and garner more medals, dubbed Own the Podium. But certainly ‘winning the most medals’ means winning more than we have won in previous games, right? Apparently not:

“We’d be living in a fool’s paradise if we said we were going to catch the Americans and win,” CEO Chris Rudge said Monday.

I was stunned. Then I looked up a few things.

The own the podium program was established in January 2005, soon after Vancouver won their bid to host the 2010 winter games. This would be the third time Canada hosts the Olympics games. The first two times, Canadian athletes failed to win any gold. I was surprised to hear this and can certainly understand why no one wanted a repeat no-gold performance.

My understanding ends there. Rather than raise the bar for sport in Canada — to generate a higher level of training, coaching, and achievement over the long term — the goal was strictly short-term.

According to the organization, their goals, as shown on ownthepodium2010.com, are:

1. Podium Performance at Olympic and Paralympic Games

Winter

  • Place first in the total medal count at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games
  • Place in the top three in the gold medal count at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games

Summer

  • Place in the top 12 nations in medal count at the 2012 Olympic Games
  • Place in the top eight in the gold medal count at the 2012 Paralympic Games

2. System Development

Own the Podium with its partners will strengthen national policy, programs, the sport delivery system and commitment to excellence for winter and summer high-performance sport.

While goal two is laudable, you’ll note that it comes only after the first goal that promises high placement in the medal standings. Goal two is also mushy and frankly, it sounds like an after thought. There’s no vision here. The second goal should have been the only goal. Instead, they spent $117 million in five years hoping for a miracle.

It doesn’t work that way.

Even if it did, there would be no foundation for a permanent elevation of Canadian results.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this mess is how the organization was so free with promises, though they aren’t the ones delivering. The athletes are the ones who train and perform. This program didn’t suddenly make the athletes more serious. Canada’s always done comparatively well in the winter Olympics, but with the exception of the 2006 games, the best we’ve done over the last two decades of winter games was to win about half the number of medals of the standings leader. All considering, I think this is a respectable showing because with one exception in that time, we’ve been in the top five.

But in 2005 we decide to get serious, throw a hundred million dollars at the problem, and expect to be the medal leader. It didn’t happen. So now what?

As of yesterday, the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee was discussing our third-place medal standing as a failure. What a wonderful message that sends to the athletes. They couldn’t deliver on a promise that someone else made on their behalf. And I think it was an unrealistic promise.

You can expect that the Own the Podium program will be seen as a failure and it’ll be cancelled or gutted. About half of the money came from the government so politicians will certainly hesitate before spending more money on a program that didn’t deliver on very clearly defined promises. And where does that leave us? Worse off than we were in 2005, that’s where.

An utter lack of vision resulted in unrealistic short-term goals that squandered resources provided by a country eager to do better. We can do better, but not so quickly and not so easily.

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