Spread Too Thin

This article from the Toronto Star highlights some interesting issues that are a reality for many Canadian National Sport Organizations (NSOs). It is troubling that the NSOs dealing with the types of issues raised in the article (i.e., insufficient funds) are the lucky ones.

NSOs that receive funding from Own The Podium (OTP) receive it for specific reasons. The funding is targeted at sports based largely on future medal potential and past Olympic performance, with the aim of developing a system to produce repeatable podium performances. An issue for many in the sport community is these NSOs receive funding because they’ve already produced results, or are in a position to produce results, but there is a whole other level of NSO that receives no funding from OTP because they are not currently seen to have medal potential.

The question is, how do these non-medal potential NSOs get to a position where they can qualify for funding without any funding to get them to that position? I don’t feel comfortable delving into the discussion about the limitations of targeted funding, but the obvious corollary to that method, and our current national sport budget, is simple: until we have considerably more money in the system, a sustained positive change–in terms of medal count–will be impossible.

It is clear systematic changes are needed to increase the efficiency of every dollar spent–of course, this doesn’t change the fact that total funds available is still the problem. For example, a sport with an annual budget of two million dollars has to spread this money between technical leadership, such as coaches and high performance directors; a team with over forty athletes; support staff of doctors, physiotherapists, physiologists, massage therapists, psychologists, and more. This budget would have to cover travel, some equipment, team development, and a portion of the infrastructure necessary for all those senior athletes, staff and developing athletes to succeed. Two million dollars quickly becomes barely sufficient, as the Star article illustrates. (I’ve provided a link above to the sports that OTP funds. Take your pick, they all have similar issues to what I’ve outlined above.)

OTP has clear goals around medals, and they do not have enough money to fund every NSO at an appropriate level to achieve those goals. For Canada to compete on the Olympic stage, we need to invest more in infrastructure, sport science, and ‘the little things that make big differences’ for those athletes who are at the peak of their careers. But for Canada to compete in the future, we need to support those athletes at the beginning of their careers. We need talent identification and a sound development plan, with tracking, to ensure the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars invested in an athlete over his or her career, will be well spent.

It isn’t simple and it isn’t cheap. Own The Podium gets a lot of flak for their approach, and I understand why, but at least OTP’s targeted funding approach has been an attempt at something new in Canada. My guess is by 2016 we will have a good idea if it’s worked, in a sustainable way, for both summer and winter sports. As the Star article points out, Vancouver was a success, but it was a costly one. Our summer Olympic success is, so far, a different story than the winter program. Our performance at the 2012 London games has raised many questions, and doubts, as it was clearly not a step forward.

If Canada wants to compete for more medals in more sports, it needs to invest more money. We are one of few countries that try to do well in both summer and winter sports. Compared to the countries that do this and are successful, our GDP and population are small and spread thin. With an extra five billion dollars tacked on to the deficit in a year when many crucial government services were cut, and sport was left alone, we need to be realistic about getting more from the government. There is a funding gap between Canada and the countries we wish compete against. The only way to fill it is through more corporate sponsorship. Of course, if it turns out medals aren’t actually what Canadians care about, getting the money may be an issue.

In time, we will know if we need to appeal to a different heartstring than the nationalist one we’re tugging on now. I like the idea of sport as a community builder, an avenue through which everyone can share in the insane adventure of an athlete’s passion; an abstract quest for excellence that manages to touch millions of people, regardless of the outcome; a thing with which people can come together to celebrate. I don’t believe most Canadians value Olympic medals enough to want to increase high performance sport funding at the expense of other services. We will remain in the position we are in now with regards to our medal tally, because the numbers don’t add up.

OTP has been an attempt at trying something new; trying things that seemed to work in other countries. In response to the funding issues (I do not see the massive, sustained influx of cash needed to really make a difference coming from corporate Canada), and potential flaws within the current funding model, OTP will begin to change, to focus more on development and become more holistic in its approach. This won’t solve the problems raised in the Star article, but it may make for a more sustainable approach to funding.