Canada’s Olympic medal targets tossed aside amid COVID-19 turmoil

For the first time since its inception, Own The Podium will not be setting out medal targets for Canadian athletes at the Olympics.

The organization — founded in 2004 with a mission to put more Canadians on the podium — recommends “performance objectives” to the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees ahead of the Summer and Winter Games.

But given the turbulent 18-months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the three organizations opted to forego those objectives for Tokyo 2020.

“It’s really difficult to do that. International landscape for sport is really inconsistent and there’s been significant variations in how nations have been impacted by the pandemic,” said Own The Podium CEO Anne Merklinger.

“Many of our sports have been unable to compete for the last 16 months. So we’re lacking the competitive results and the datapoints both from our sports and from other countries to really have confidence and have enough evidence to determine reasonable performance objectives.”

Sandrine Mainville, left-to-right, Chantal VanLandeghem, Tayor Ruck and Penny Oleksiak pose with their medals after winning bronze in the 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Canada’s swimming program received the largest funding boost from Own The Podium heading into Tokyo 2020, and is now most-funded program in the country. (David Gray/REUTERS)

Athlete safety will measure success

Own The Podium is responsible for flowing federal government money to national sport organizations. The funding allocations are, in part, based on podium prospects. So Canadians watching at home can generally set a level of expectation based on a particular team’s funding.

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But Merklinger says Canada’s success at these Games won’t just be defined by the medal count.

“We will also look, first and foremost, at making sure that the athletes get to Tokyo, return home from Tokyo and compete in Tokyo in a safe and healthy way,” Merklinger said on what the nation’s objectives should be, adding the athletes will have their own goals of reaching the podium.

“Especially still in the midst of a pandemic, and that our Japanese hosts are protected. What we’ve really focused on, in terms of defining success, is making sure that they’ve been optimally prepared in the pandemic.

“I think the first gold medal should be awarded to our Japanese hosts for making the Games happen.”

WATCH | The pandemic meant less time in the pool for Canadian swimmers:

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Merklinger said it was only about four months ago that Own The Podium, as well as the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees decided to forego performance objectives.

“That was not a difficult decision for us. We also want to make sure that, as sport organizations head into both Olympic and Paralympic Games — and given the nature of the pandemic and the impact — that the focus on podium results is not in the forefront of their minds.”

Canada’s Akeem Haynes, left to right, Aaron Brown, Brendon Rodney and Andre De Grasse show off their 4×100-metre bronze medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Canada’s athletics program received a the second-largest funding boost from Own The Podium heading into Tokyo 2020. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Swimming, athletics, receive largest boost

Following breakout performances with medal productions not seen in decades, Canada’s swimming and athletic programs received the two largest funding boosts of any national programs leading up to Tokyo 2020.

Although, Own The Podium’s funding recommendations are based on future medal potential — not past performances — meaning Canadians should have a lot to look forward to on the track, in the field, and in the pool.

Given the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games, sport organizations received an extra year of funding from Own The Podium. So, to make an apples-to-apples comparison in how funding either increased or decreased from Rio, CBC Sports has prorated the five-year Tokyo funding cycle, into a four-year cycle.

On that basis, swimming received a $4.7 million quadrennial boost, with athletics receiving $3.5 million in additional funding.

“They have a pool of athletes that have medal potential for both Tokyo and, we talk about [next generation], so that’s essentially Paris [in 2024],” Merklinger said.

Medal hopes in beach volleyball

Another program which received a significant funding boost is Canada’s beach volleyball program to the tune of more than $2 million, prorated (a 1,259 per cent increase from Rio funding).

“They’re a sport that we have identified as having evidence of medal potential heading into Tokyo. Obviously they’ve had a tremendously successful last few years,” Merklinger said.

“Again, they’re a sport that’s been significantly impacted by the pandemic. There were several months where the beach teams were not able to train together, and several of them also missed key competitions. So they’re there to do what they can do and perform to their best.”

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One noteworthy change in funding allocations was with Canada’s rowing program, following a forgettable Rio Olympics in 2016.

Rowing, which had long received the most money among the national programs, now ranks third behind swimming and athletics.

And while the program technically received more money over the five years than it did in the four years leading into Rio, over a prorated four-year cycle the program’s funding was actually reduced by $1.5 million.

Still, Merklinger says there’s a deep talent pool on the water. And with the hiring of several new high performance coaches, there’s a change in culture within the organization.

“We’ve observed that over the course of five years. The strength of their athlete pool has increased, not just for Tokyo, but for Paris. So, what we call the next generation pool, has significantly impacted,” Merklinger said.

“They’ve made some very difficult decisions in terms of centralizing in one part of the country. And, so, all those decisions help permeate that culture of excellence throughout the entire high performance program and throughout the entire organization.

“We’ve seen a remarkable and steady improvement in rowing over the course of the five years.”

WATCH | Canada sending largest rowing team in 25 years to the Tokyo Olympics:

Olympic champion rower and Team Canada chef de mission for the 2020 Olympic Games Marnie McBean, and first-time Olympic rower Gabrielle Smith joined CBC Morning Live’s Heather Hiscox to discuss the large contingent of rowers that Canada will be sending to Tokyo 2020. 9:52

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