Canadian officials seek more paths to the Olympic podium

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With the flame extinguished for another four years and the reviews and examinations about to begin, Canadian Olympic officials need not spend too much time worrying about how to boost our medal totals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Overall, the medal haul in London was pretty much as expected and, all things considered, about what we deserved.

Sure, there were a few disappointments from athletes with high expectations who, for various reasons, couldn’t summon their best when needed. But those were offset by surprise performances from a few whose preparation and dedication were rewarded with a spot on the podium.

No, the number of medals won isn’t what needs to be looked at by those in charge of boosting our summer-Olympics program. What needs to be addressed is how to get a few more Canadians to bring home gold medals.

This is in no way meant to knock the bronze-medal performances turned in by 12 of our athletes or teams. Every Olympic medal is a huge accomplishment and should be lauded for its merits. But with 12 bronze and just one gold among our 18 medals, there seemed to be a barrier for Canadian athletes—save for trampolinist Rosie MacLennan—from reaching the top step of the podium.

“We need to celebrate the one gold medal we did get, but, that said, every colour of medal matters to Canadians and matters to young boys and girls who will be inspired by Olympic medallists, be they gold, silver, or bronze,” Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own the Podium (the group charged with doling out $30 million in government funding to our summer athletes), tells the Georgia Straight by phone from London. “We work with sports to establish what the gold-medal profile is, and that’s always what every athlete here is aspiring to do: to win a gold medal. But there’s not much that separates gold, silver, and bronze, and at the same time we celebrate the gold-medal performances we need to celebrate silver and bronze.”

The fact so many Canadians put themselves in position to win medals is irrefutable proof that their training methods are working, that they are truly world-class, and that they belong with the best in whatever sport they have pursued.

The question Canadian officials now must examine is what is keeping our athletes—in that swimming final, in that championship wrestling bout, in that final round of platform diving—from reaching the highest heights when the moment calls for greatness.

Sometimes the competition is simply too tough and an undisputed world champion turns an event a race for second spot. Those things will happen. But where Canadians come in as the favourites or competitions are wide open, there must be a reason (or reasons) our athletes are unable to fully rise to the occasion.

Is it something physical that can be addressed in training? Is it something technical that could be helped with coaching? Or is it the mental approach that needs to be adjusted to have our athletes truly believing deep inside that they can be the best?

The fact that Canada set the summer Olympic record for most bronze medals with only one gold is a clear indication that our performance in London was slightly unusual. Not bad, but just a touch quirky and quintessentially Canadian.

One of the biggest positives to come out of the London Games was the performance of so many young Canadian athletes experiencing the Olympics for the first time, particularly in track and field. That bodes well for Rio de Janeiro in four years’ time, provided those athletes get the assistance they need to reach their peaks at precisely the right moment.

“We identify sport by sport what our podium potential is…and we actually rank and determine investment strategies based on the podium potential for those sports,” Merklinger says, explaining OTP’s funding strategy. “Each and every one of the athletes that won a medal here in London received targeted support and investment through Own the Podium, so in that respect the program is very successful to this point in time. We still have a long way to go. The investment in summer sport is only three years old, so it’s pretty new, but we’re already seeing the dividends returned in terms of the investment.”

Money is a start, but handing our Olympians a cheque isn’t enough. Strategies must be devised by those in charge that will give our athletes every competitive advantage possible.

Canadian Olympic officials must learn some lessons from the London Games and begin applying them to this country’s preparations for the Rio Games. With more countries than ever aspiring to the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, it’s only getting tougher to win gold medals.

“In these Games, we saw over 200 nations, and the level of competition from nations that haven’t won medals in the past has really increased, and many countries are stepping up their games, as is Canada,” Merklinger says. “This is the ultimate contest in terms of high-performance sport, and the summer Olympic Games is a very competitive environment. Own the Podium is all about setting the bar high and finding the way we can have more athletes winning medals. So it’s very important to Canada that we be successful on the world stage.”

Many Canadians believe our athletes have it in them to be the world’s best. Now we, as a country, just have to find a way to help a few more of them reach their golden goals.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at patersonjeff.

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