Regardless of the outcome of the Sochi Olympics for Canada, the path that we charted to prepare for the games was unprecedented and represents an evolution in the way in which Canada now competes in the Olympics and other major sporting events.
In preparing for the Vancouver games, the leaders of the Canadian sport community knew that there was a very high probability that Canadian athletes would not fare well unless some dramatic steps were taken to improve the performance levels in all of the 15 winter sports. The challenge to Roger Jackson, the first CEO of the newly created independent agency, Own the Podium (OTP), was to set in motion a series of initiatives that would result in Canada exceeding all previous medal totals. In essence, the OTP approach embraced a “winner take all” attitude where financial and other support for athletes would be directed to those sports and athletes that were identified as high potential medalists.
In an instant, sentimentality and a “passion for bronze” attitude disappeared in favour of a targeted and very strategic approach to winning gold medals.
Initially, this change in orientation came as a shock to the whole sporting community – athletes, coaches, national sports organizations, and the general public. For the first time, explicit expectations and plans for each sport and athlete were spelled out. Potential high performance athletes were rated and ranked and their progress was ruthlessly monitored. In addition, they were also provided with first-class coaching, opportunities to compete in world level competitive events, modern training facilities, and all the physiotherapists, nutritionists and sports psychologists that they needed. When training performances did not meet the agreed upon goals, plans were adjusted and funding was redirected in the direction of better medal prospects.
At that time, the Canadian Olympic Committee also reoriented its own activities through seeking greater private sector sponsorships by intertwining the market value of the Olympic rings with Canadian nationalism especially associated with the winter games where Canadians have a strong attachment.
As well, Sport Canada increased its overall support to national sports organizations and corporations, and individual Canadians found ways to participate in the move to excellence by providing additional financial support through organizations like the Canadian Olympic Foundation.
Over the past two Olympics, the federal and provincial governments have contributed more than $100 million in an effort to make Canada one of the most elite athletic countries in the world. Regardless of the benefit-to-cost ratio of these investments, the OTP experience serves as an interesting and concrete example of performance-based government funding. Given the significant success of the OTP experiment, the question begging for an answer is whether other government programs could be based on a similar model that depends on performance, rigorous evaluation, and widely based funding models, which involve the private sector and individual sponsors.
In the current environment, Canadians are very reluctant to pay for new public policies through increases in taxation, despite their desire for world-class programs and results. This inherent contradiction in logic means that policymakers must find alternative ways of funding high priority policies that meet public acceptance.
Perhaps the new social contract that governments need to negotiate with their citizens is a variation on the OTP model. The traditional government model used to fund large scale programs often contains a set of vague and conflicting goals, unimaginative delivery systems, weak monitoring systems and limited outcome measures.
The OTP approach that has been developed over the last several years depends on targeted funding, choosing the most appropriate policy instruments, including third party program delivery, ruthless performance measurement, independent outcome evaluation, and the cessation of funding if the goals have not been met.
The OTP approach has eschewed all notions of entitlements for sports and athletes and has created a new culture about meeting publicly articulated goals with consequences for outcomes. This approach has been very successful in the world of elite sport management and has met with high levels of public approval.
It does not necessarily follow that the OTP model is best suited for all policy initiatives but there might be some elements in this model that can migrate over to other policy arenas. At least, it would give parliamentarians a new lens to evaluate the potential effectiveness of new policy initiatives.
David Zussman was the Task Force Chair for 2010 and Beyond: The Future of High Performance Sport in Canada.