Opinion
May 7, 2012

Lesson from Own the Podium

Most Canadians were glued to their televisions on February 28 when Canada triumphed in the gold medal hockey game against the United States in one of the most exciting sporting events ever played. At the same time, Canada captured its 14th gold medal of the Winter Olympics and, in so doing, broke the previous record for the most first place medals won by any country in a Winter Olympics.  

Given that Canada had never won a gold medal at either of the two Olympics it had previously hosted, there was enormous pressure on the shoulders of the 205 members of the Canadian team. Ironically, it was this failure to win a gold medal that prompted a small number of sports community leaders, in 2005, to persuade the federal government to join with the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee (VANOC), the private sector, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and the Canadian Olympic Committee in a concerted and coordinated effort to remedy the embarrassing failures of earlier games.

The result was Own the Podium 2010 (OTP), an arms length from government organization with a mandate to identify and develop those athletes with the most potential to succeed in the games.

While the accomplishments of Canada’s athletes are already the substance of legends, the OTP experience is also a compelling story in its own right and is a vivid example of the value of strategic planning, explicit goal setting and the power of partnerships built around a common purpose.   

At the outset, it was determined that OTP would lever the pooled financial resources provided by Sport Canada, VANOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee by directing funds to sports where there was evidence that Canada would have a good chance to earn a medal. That meant making tough choices among many qualified and committed athletes.

Second, individual athletes would receive all facets of funding that would enhance their chances of doing well such as living expenses, equipment testing and development, travel costs to international competitions, world class coaching and the provision of individual healthy living plans that would enhance their performance.

Third, every effort would be made to improve Canadians’ access to competitions so that they could test themselves against the best athletes in the world.

And fourth, there was a commitment to apply all aspects of scientific research and development to improve the chances of shaving hundredths of a second from individual performances.

Increasing the effectiveness of athletic equipment through design improvements, enhancing training techniques, and taking advantage of nutritional sciences were all instances of the degree to which OTP used evidence-based techniques to provide whatever additional help was possible to each athlete.   

On March 11, 2010 the federal government released The 2010 and Beyond Panel report it had commissioned on the future of high performance sport in Canada. In it, the panel reviewed the consultations that it conducted with the high-performance community and, based on these conversations, proposed a series of measures to ensure the long-term viability of the OTP approach.

However, the OTP program raises issues that go far beyond high-performance sports. It challenges Canadians to think about the meaning of competition in a global setting and to contemplate whether the OTP philosophy should also apply to other sectors of Canadian society. For example, in the context of the often-repeated aspiration by various governments to be among the most competitive countries in the world, the OTP experience raises important questions about whether Canadians have the same appetite to compete to be the best in other spheres such as innovation and technology.  

To achieve medal status, Canadians will have to commit themselves to a more focused form of vigorous competition where there is more of a “winner-take-all” attitude. As well, Canadian leaders will have to take a hard look at our government and private sector institutions to determine whether they are organized in a way that will make Canadians more competitive internationally by creating more collaboration among our institutions at home. Most of all, are we really ready to focus our efforts where we have the greatest chance of success?

The OTP experience created the right environment for our athletes to excel in this year’s Winter Olympics. The question is whether Canadians have the same aspirations for the country to be among the best in the world in other areas of endeavour.  


David Zussman was chair of the federal government task force that produced the 2010 and Beyond Panel report. He holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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