Plan targets 'severely disabled' sports for more medals

Rick Westhead, TSN Senior Correspondent
9/2/2014 2:19:31 PM
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The problem: Canada's Paralympic team performed well below expectations two years ago during the Summer Games in London.

One possible solution: targeting events that attract the severely disabled and have weaker entry fields, giving Canada a chance to boost its medal count.

Savvy tactic or "shameful" sportsmanship?

Own The Podium, Canada's high-performance sport funding initiative, is suggesting Canadian Paralympic officials target athletes who participate in sports for the severely disabled, a strategy that could boost Canada's faltering Paralympic medal count but one that is leaving some sports marketing executives and athletes suggesting officials are using a "back door" to get more medals.

The suggestion by Own The Podium officials was disclosed in documents obtained by TSN under Canada's Access to Information laws and comes after a performance by the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic teams in London that's described by Canadian officials as disappointing.

The documents include email correspondence, post-Games briefings and audits that dissect Canada's performance at the 2012 Summer Games in London and suggest that during the lead-up to the next Olympic Games in Rio in two years, Canada is paring the number of sports and athletes it funds through the Own The Podium program.

The documents were produced by Own the Podium in late 2012 and were shared with the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees as well as the federal government.

They highlight how Canadian officials have dropped the "please like us" veneer in favour of a more cutthroat approach to competition.

Created in 2005, the Own the Podium program has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Canada's quest for medals, focusing on athletes who are predicted to have a top-three finish. In Vancouver, the program garnered widespread approval after Team Canada won 14 gold medals, tops among countries, after having been shut out of golds in the prior two Olympic Games held in Canada.

In one document titled, "Confidential initial reflections from 2012 Paralympic Games," Own The Podium officials wrote Canada "took a significant step back relative to other leading nations" at the London Paralympic Games.
Canada secured seven gold medals at London, half as many as Own the Podium staff had predicted for the Canadian team, according to the Oct. 4, 2012, document.

"Other nations have adopted a much more professional approach in many para-sports," the document says. "There is some complacency within some para-sports in Canada.

"Canada struggles with entries in events for classes with more severely disabled athletes," the document says. "Many nations appear to have targeted performance in events for female athletes with a disability… Consider strategic investments that support potential multi-gold individual athletes and events with weak depth of field such as events for athletes with severe disabilities and some events for female athletes."

Own the Podium has cut funding to several Paralympic sports following London, including women's wheelchair basketball (which received a total of $986,000 in 2009-10 and 2010-11 but has not received funding since the 2012 Games) and women's goalball. Equestrian's funding was also cut drastically.

Still, Own The Podium has increased its funding in the Paralympics to triathlon, canoe-kayak and archery and overall, its Paralympic funding has totaled $10.1 million in the first two years of the Rio 2016 quadrennial, up from $9.4 million during the first two years of the London quadrennial.

One of the document's conclusions has been censored by the Canadian government, which cited the confidentiality of a third party.

The tactic of targeting sports for the severely disabled is polarizing.

"On one hand, the outcome (support for a worth cause) is good," said Mike Gilleran, executive director of the Santa Clara University's sports law and ethics department. "On the other, the motive, 'let's kick ass in this weaker depth of field for the glory of Canada' is probably not the most inspirational call to arms we've ever heard."

Andy Harkness, a sports marketing executive in Toronto whose clients include Canadian Tire and Scotiabank, said he doesn't like the strategy.

"We shouldn't prop up our medal counts on the back of lesser known sports and athletes," Harkness said. "The rub to me is that it sounds like we are using 'severely disabled' athletes to prop up numbers and that doesn't sound right."

Jeff Adams, a Canadian Paralympian and six-time world champion in wheelchair sports, called Own The Podium's tactic "shameful."

"How are the underpinnings of this document reconciled with the spirit of sport and all the motherhood and apple pie messages about not winning at all costs?" Adams told TSN.

"When that 'win at all costs' mentality is layered with 'win the easy medals at all costs,' it becomes doubly wrong," he said. "Chasing after easy things is certainly not what sport taught me, and this sends a terrible message to athletes and to Canadians. I'm embarrassed this document was created."

Own The Podium chief executive Anne Merklinger said the tactic has nothing to do with cutting financial support to athletes who already are receiving help.

"It's not a question of narrowing the focus," she said in an interview. "It's a question of focusing on athletes that have severe disabilities because when you look at the international scene, there are very few entries from nations in categories of athletes that have severe disabilities. That is a strategic opportunity. If Canada is able to identify athletes with severe disabilities, that is a medal opportunity for our country."
Martin Richard, a spokesperson with the Canadian Paralympic Committee, said he attended a conference in 2012 when Merklinger disclosed the suggested tactic.

"These were early observations," Richard said. "I understand (the concerns.) It's the language. It's direct. There's no rationale behind it, and it opens it up for interpretation."

Bob Stellick, a Toronto sports marketer, suggested Own The Podium's suggestion is a sign of the times.

"It sounds harsh but really does mimic what (Canada's Olympic teams) were doing at the regular Olympics," Stellick said. "They definitely focused on more obscure and limited talent pool sports."

Own The Podium also noted in the confidential documents that able-bodied Canadian Olympic teams in rowing, cycling and diving also underperformed--at a time when around the world, "escalating investment in Olympic medals has turned into an arms race."

There was a "shallow pool of podium potential athletes," Merklinger's group said in a Sept. 17, 2012, memo. "Anticipate that fewer sports will be targeted for 2016."

Since London, Own The Podium has cut funding on the able bodied side to men's wrestling, fencing, gymnastics. Sports that have received an increase in funding include archery, tennis and women's rugby.

London Paralympics Opening (Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)


(Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Facts and Figures

London 2012 at Paralympics

- Canada finished 20th in gold medal rankings, compared with 7th in 2008.

- Canada finished 13th in total medal rankings in 2012, compared with 10th in 2008.

Greatest Decrease In

Total Medal Count

Nation: 2012, 2008, Diff

S. Africa: 8, 21, -13

Canada: 7, 19, -12

G. Britain: 34, 42, -8

Spain: 8, 15, -7

United States: 31, 36, -5

Gold Measure

Canadian Gold Medals

In Summer Olympics

Since 1976

1976 (Montreal): 0

1984 (Los Angeles): 10

1988 (Seoul): 3

1992 (Barcelona): 7

1996 (Atlanta): 3

2000 (Sydney): 3

2004 (Athens): 3

2008 (Beijing): 3

2012 (London): 1

Canadian Gold Medals

In Summer Paralympics

Since 1976

1976 (Toronto): 25

1980 (Arnhem): 64

1984 (New York): 87

1988 (Seoul): 54

1992 (Barcelona): 28

1996 (Atlanta): 24

2000 (Sydney): 38

2004 (Athens): 28

2008 (Beijing): 19

2012 (London): 7

Canadian Gold Medals

In Winter Olympics

Since 1976

1976 (Innsbruck): 1

1980 (Lake Placid): 0

1984 (Sarajevo): 2

1988 (Calgary): 0

1992 (Albertville): 2

1994 (Lillehammer): 3

1998 (Nagano): 6

2002 (Salt Lake City): 7

2006 (Torino): 7

2010 (Vancouver): 14

2014 (Sochi): 10

Canadian Gold Medals

In Winter Paralympics

Since 1976

1976 (Ornskoldsvik): 2

1980 (Geilo): 2

1984 (Innsbruck): 2

1988 (Innsbruck): 5

1992 (Albertville): 2

1994 (Lillehammer): 1

1998 (Nagano): 1

2002 (Salt Lake City): 6

2006 (Torino): 5

2010 (Vancouver): 10

2014 (Sochi): 7

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