Hot Gold Needs Cold Cash

February 17, 2012 9:57 am

For Kate Chisholm of Capital Power Corporation, the turning point came when Olympian tri-athlete Simon Whitfield requested a humidity-infused cargo ship to train in. While the request might seem strange, Chisholm was more than willing to fork out cash to rent the ship. After all, success at modern day Olympics no longer just about sheer talent. It’s about access to the best coaches, psychologists and importantly, training facilities money can buy.

The cargo ship was an ideal training space for Whitfield. It was large enough for him to use for running during a Canadian winter and the humidity mimicked the steamy atmosphere of Beijing. The result? Whitfield brought home a silver medal in the men’s triathlon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “He trained in the cargo ship for months,” said Chisholm, Senior Vice President and Corporate Secretary of Capital, an independent power-generation company based in Edmonton. “He wouldn’t have been able to do that without fundraising events like those organized by the Canadian Olympic Committee and sponsored by corporations like Capital.” Capital’s contribution to the Olympic movement has been substantial. It was the primary sponsor of the Gold Medal Plates fundfraiser at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre in November 2011. The Ottawa event, attended by Justin Trudeau and other luminaries, was part of a national culinary competition. The annual soirée, organized by the Canadian Olympic Committee, has raised almost $5 million since 2004.

Tri-athlete Simon Whitfield

While Capital’s support is admirable and greatly appreciated by athletes, it comes with a downside. Corporate sponsorship fills the gap where government dollars are absent. Canada lags behind other G8 nations when it comes to government support for sport. The feds chip in a paltry five per cent of Olympic funds. The rest comes from the private sector. Compare this to Kenya (a non G8 country), which has an Olympic program entirely funded by its government. Most countries fall midway between Canada’s 5 per cent government funding and Kenya’s 100 per cent funding levels. (Canada is, however, streets ahead of the United States who is one of three countries whose government gives zero dollars to athletes.)

According to Canadian Olympic Committee Treasurer Wayne Russell, the Canadian situation needs to change. “We are a G7 nation this means we are one of the top seven nations in the world economically, health care and in education. We are a well educated and very fit group of people in this country and we are well financed. We should receive funding for our athletes that allows them to compete with the best of world. But when I put it all together, I don’t think we are in the top 25 per cent in the world in terms of support coming from Government to athletes.”

Russell should know. A Canadian Olympic Committee board member since 1997, Russell is the founding chair of the Canadian Hockey Foundation and former chief executive officer of the Own the Podium program. Russell says that the Own the Podium program was a great step forward.  The feds doubled its contribution to the winter sports portion of Own the Podium. The program was widely credited for Canada’s Vancouver Olympics success story.

The more money poured in, the greater the medal haul.

There is no question that the connection between Olympic dollars and success is undeniable. The more money poured in, the greater the medal haul. A 2011 study by the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid calculated it cost 40 million Euros ($55 million Canadian) for a country to win a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. By this measure, Canada’s medal standing at the Vancouver Games was nothing short of miraculous. Canada won 26 medals in total including 14 gold medals which was a record for any nation at any single Winter Games — let alone for a host country — and was achieved with a budget of $118 million.

In fairness, Russell says at while the money is critical, it is also important to have a clear strategic vision. “You have to have a clearly developed plan as to how you are going to recruit athletes, train them and bring them to the games. If that plan is well thought out and constantly updated, then money makes a huge difference. If you ask me without such a plan does money make a difference? I am not sure it does.”

The Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games were a great experiment with the Own the Podium plan. It was a bold plan whose main goal was simply to: “Place first in the total medal count at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.” Not only did Canada achieve its goal, it proved that collaboration works. For the first time, 13 winter sports federations pooled their funding on technology and human performance research. With the athletes’ determination and dedication and the assistance of government, success was ours.

While the Winter Games were a resounding success, Russell is less optimistic about Canada’s chances at the 2012 London Olympics. “Do we have enough money for the summer program? The answer is no.” says Russell. The main challenge says Russell, is that Canada is a northern nation and it is easier for Canada to prepare its winter athletes. “While the Government contribution to summer sports through the Own the Podium program is larger in dollar terms, the money needs to stretch further. Through Sport Canada, the Government of Canada contributed $22 million to winter sports and $34 million to summer sports. A further $6 million was earmarked for team sports. “The number of sports in the summer program is larger and we need a lot more money to implement that program,” says Russell.

The athletes themselves, they believe that funding is the key.

But he adds, Olympic success at the upcoming 2012 Summer Games in London is possible. “Canada had a plan in Vancouver and it really showed results. Now we have to make sure that plan has the capacity to go to the summer sports.” The only missing element is the dollars – and that money may need to come from the Government. “The private sector is going through some tough economic times. And of course, when you are relying on the private sector you always ride the rollercoaster. You hope that you will get money for the coming year but it’s always a very strict battle.” As for medal count expectations in London? The goal for Canadians is more modest than for Vancouver 2010. We hope to have a top 12 finish at the 2012 Summer Games and a top eight finish at the Paralympics Games.

As for the athletes themselves, they believe that funding is the key. Joannie Rochette became Canada’s sweetheart after securing a bronze medal in figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics shortly after her mother died.

Citing communist Russia as an example, Rochette said money “makes all the difference” to a country’s Olympic medal haul. Funding from the Canadian Olympic Committee helped Rochette hire a choreographer for two $10,000 skating sets and skating costumes worth up to $5,000 each. “It was important to have the best during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic program and to feel like I had the best,”says Rochette.

But Rochette says Olympic funding is about more than just medal glory – it’s about the future of Canada’s children.

“As a society it is important to get kids moving. If they grow up seeing their heroes on TV at the Olympics winning medals it will inspire them to be active and the chances are they will keep being active when they grow up. ” Rochette says. “I see this now because with my mom having a heart attack right before the games, I realize how important it is to be active. My mom did not have the gift of doing sports when she was young so it was not natural for her.”

More information on supporting Canada’s Olympic heroes at the 2012 London Games is available at the Canadian Olympic Committee website at www.olympic.ca.

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