Canada won a grand total of zero gold medals at the 1988 winter Olympics in Calgary, tying for tenth overall with just five medals. At Sochi, we came in fourth with 25 medals, including 10 gold.
This is a major success for the people that run the Olympics business in Canada.
Don’t be fooled by the feel-good human interest stories you saw on television about small town Canadians helping their young local star make it to the top. The athletes and their communities were no less committed in 1988.
What has changed is that Canada got serious about the Olympics as an enterprise. “Own the Podium,” just one of the many organizations involved, spent $81 million on elite winter athletics in the four years prior to Sochi. They also put $107 million into the London summer games athletes.
It works out to $3.2 million per Sochi medal, and that doesn’t even count money spent by athletes, their sponsors, individual sports organizations or other Olympic groups like B2ten, which provides targeted support for Canada’s top dozen or two medal prospects.
Some decry the Olympics’ departure from the old “amateur” ideal. It was indeed charming back in 1952 that the boys on the Edmonton Mercurys hockey club could go to the Olympics and win the gold medal.
But, like it or not, those days are over.
The competition faced by Canadian Olympics Inc., if I can call it that, was tough. The Kremlin threw absurd trainloads of cash at the Russian program. The Americans partnered with an impressive range of high-tech companies to help them with their bobsled aerodynamics, blade edges and low-friction bodysuits. The Germans, Chinese and South Koreans weren’t napping either.
Just as we are proud of our athletes being among the best in the world, we should also be proud that our governments, corporations and sports bureaucracies can organize such a strong team performance. With Nortel history and Blackberry on the ropes, Canada doesn’t have too many business success stories to feel good about (except, depending on your point of view, our world-beating oil and gas industry).
In the old days, the Olympics sports business in Canada was run in the traditional way. That means on a shoestring by committees of well-meaning volunteers.
It is interesting to observe that the new Olympic sports model borrows some important elements from successful businesses. Besides the big cash mentioned above, it looks like Canadian Olympics Inc. likes a rigorous operational plan and isn’t shy about making tough and sometimes ruthless decisions.
By rigorous operational plan, I mean recognizing that success in sports needs three things to come together: talent, coaching and facilities. For many winter sports, these three things come together in Calgary or Canmore where the 1988 Games were located. Instead of spreading resources around the country, sports bosses have invested in centres of excellence.
According to a report done for the 2010 Olympics, the legacy of the 1988 games and these centres of excellence is quite impressive. At the 2006 Torino winter games, more than a quarter of Team Canada was from Calgary or nearby. Nearly three out of four Canadian medallists were either Albertan or trained there.
It’s not impossible to make Team Canada if you train somewhere else, but it is probably harder.
Sports bosses don’t like to advertise it, but they also look to be as cold and calculating as any executive of a big multinational corporation deciding to close a factory that isn’t profitable enough.
Take the private foundation B2ten mentioned above. Their exact budget isn’t public, but the media reports that 15 rich donors put $20 million into it before the Vancouver games.
They don’t help all Canadian athletes. Instead, they choose 15-20 athletes who can win, are receptive to coaching and support, and who have specific needs. Then the group pays for targeted support, which could include new equipment, coaching or access to top sports psychologists.
Prior to Sochi, the group invited 16 potential medallists to an exclusive retreat in Mont Tremblant to help them prepare to be their best at the Olympics.
Of course, if you’ve invited 16 winter Olympians that also means that you didn’t invite more than 150 others. If you want to get invited, you need to prove your potential and your receptiveness to their support.
“Socialist athletics is just not optimal,” is how J.D. Miller, one of B2ten’s founders, put it to the media.
The risk for Canadian Olympics Inc. is that they make everything too business-like, which might put off the viewers that generate the advertising revenue and the vote-seeking politicians who fund elite sports programs.
With the record-setting Sochi medal count, however, our sports bosses look safe. Until the next Olympics anyway.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith