I’m GLAD We Didn’t Own the Podium

14 Golds, and #14 being the Men’s Olympic Gold, no Canadian could have asked for a better result! What an amazing Olympics!!

But there were at least a few Canadians that did expect more.

Men’s Pursuit Speed Skating Gold Medalists by mariskar

Own the Podium, a >$110M investment to get Canada to the top of the medals list, almost ended in disaster. It was only the last few days of the games where we went from 5th place and a decent medal count to #3 with a record gold medal haul. If not for the last minute push, all this money would have seemed a poor investment.

Own the Podium is patterned after the success of other countries –notably Australia– who created similar programs netting great success in the summer games. Perhaps it is the way that media has decided to cover these initiatives, but I got the strong impression it was expected that money would directly translate into medals. Effectively, you could buy your way to the top of the podium.

This makes some intuitive sense, one of the longest standing arguments about the Olympics is if you should allow professional athletes into the games. Professional athletes have their own ‘Own the Podium’, where their professional status allows them to perfect their endurance and skill with full-time focus. Is there any surprise that the dynamic of Olympic hockey or basketball completely changed when pro athletes were allowed?

We need a lot more than money to own the podium.

As I was watching Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir put on the performance of their life to win gold in Ice Dance my ears perked up when I heard that they had been dancing together for 13 years. Wow, they must be able to read each other’s minds when they are on the ice! 13 years reminded me of the 10 years or ‘10,000 hour rule’ that Gladwell popularized in Outliers, describing the time commitment to become exceptional at something.

There is much debate about this ‘rule’, but I think you will also question how much a program launched 5 years ago (Own the Podium was Launched in 2005) can impact the success of stars that have been 13 years in the making?? Clearly the impact isn’t zero, our success has improved, and the athletes sounded very genuine when they thanked the Own the Podium after winning their medals.

If we ‘owned the podium’ with a 5 year effort I think we would be selling ourselves short.

Germany & USA, the countries that beat us in the medal standings, have been developing their amateur athletic programs for years via various means (note they were also the top 2 in Turin 2006 and in the top 3 in 2002): The USA through their strong varsity programs, plus a concerted effort to beat the Soviets during the cold war, and Germany through cold war funding on both sides, plus a strong desire to rebuild a national identity tarnished by two World Wars. Each of these countries are benefitting from the strong community of athletes, coaches and facilities that have been build up over decades of olympic success.

Owning the podium needs a concerted and consistent effort supported by funding and a rich support network of people that have experienced their own olympic success.

And that’s the good news.

With our 14 gold medals, we have now doubled the number of golds that were won by Canada in the previous two olympics (Turin 7 & 7 in Salt Lake), and have a new generation of people who have stood at the top of the world in their sport. This new generation will inspire and teach our next generation of athletes and non-athletes the commitment, effort and mindset required to succeed, with (I hope!) the sustained support of Own the Podium or programs like it.

Isn’t $110M a lot of money for olympic success? Actually, it is a pittance. For perspective, $110M is about what a new high-tech start-up has to raise to make it from inception to having a product to sell to the market. Its well known that 9/10 businesses fail. With this $110M, and the much more significant volunteer effort that it supports, Canada stands on top in a record 14 events, and is world class in 10’s of others. Or to put it another way, about $3 per Canadian to remind us how great a diverse-yet-united nation we are, and how proud we all are to be Canadians.

And that is why I am glad we didn’t own the podium: Because we still have something to strive for, something to justify the continued long-term investment that is required to be competitive on the world athletic stage, and reap the many direct and indirect benefits for years to come. And to remind us it isn’t that easy!

What do you think?

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