March 31, 2005

Following the Money, Part 3

A couple of weeks ago (read part 1, read part 2) I wrote two posts that tracked federal funding for amateur sports in Canada over an eight-year period.

Today I am following up with a performance-per-dollar analysis of the various Canadian NSFs. Here I define "performance" very narrowly as "winning Olympic medals," and use the annual NSF funding as a measure of the cost of those medals.

I counted up the medals won by each sport in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004 — roughly the time period covered by the spending data — and then divided by the number of summer (3) or winter (2) games. This total was then divided by the average annual Sport Canada contribution to the NSF, in millions of Canadian dollars.

Analysis of performance versus cost for Canadian NSFs.
Sport Average Annual Funding (M$) Medals per Olympiad Per Million Dollars Annual Funding
Summer Sports
Diving 0.48 3.45
Cycling 0.80 2.93
Rowing 0.99 2.70
Canoe/Kayak 0.76 2.64
Gymnastics 0.59 2.26
Wrestling 0.57 1.75
Triathlon 0.20 1.63
Taekwondo 0.28 1.19
Swimming 1.39 0.96
Synchro Swim 0.76 0.88
Boxing 0.49 0.68
Judo 0.51 0.66
Tennis 0.56 0.60
Athletics 1.26 0.53
Yachting 0.74 0.45
Volleyball 0.87 0.39
Basketball 0.91 0.00
Other Summer 4.98 0.00
All Summer 17.12 0.93
Winter Sports
Speed Skating 1.06 8.52
Curling 0.56 3.55
Snowboard 0.23 2.20
Freestyle Ski 0.66 1.51
Hockey 1.26 1.19
Figure Skating 0.87 1.15
Bobsleigh & Luge 0.49 1.02
Cross Country Ski 0.55 0.90
Alpine Ski 0.92 0.00
Other Winter 0.43 0.00
All Winter 7.04 2.27

A couple of notes about the data. First, recall that the funding data cover eight fiscal years from 1995-96 through 2002-03. The Average Annual Funding is always averaged over eight years, except for Triathlon, Taekwondo, and Snowboard, which did not receive funding in all years. In these cases I only included years where the NSF received at least $100,000 in Sport Canada money. Also, remember that this annual funding is the total Sport Canada contribution to the NSF, which includes money for high performance and also money for sport development, or participation, or whatever you want to call it. And some of the NSFs have very significant non-government sources of funding, which are not included here.

We shouldn't put too much weight on this, because of the points above, and because of small sample sizes inherent in counting medals this way. But overall, I think it gives a rough picture of the sports that are "efficient" at producing Olympic medallists in Canada. Speed Skating, clearly, is where we are getting the real bang for our buck! I was surprised to see one sport so far ahead of the rest.

Any other surprises? Well, among summer sports I was surprised that Gymnastics is such an efficient medal producer, but I probably shouldn't have been, because the NSF also governs trampoline. I was also a little bit surprised that Diving receives relatively little funding.

Another interesting conclusion is that, on average, a summer Olympic medal is almost 2.5 times more expensive than a winter Olympic medal. Just for entertainment purposes, let's take a wild-assed stab at the impact of Own the Podium (my previous posts: 1, 2). If Own the Podium creates $11M per year of new government money for winter sports, and if we win (on average) 2.27 winter Olympic medals for every million dollars in annual government funding, then we would expect (11 × 2.27) = 25 new medals per winter Olympics.

Twenty-five new medals added to our 2002 total would put Canada well over the Own the Podium goal at 42. Obviously, this is not going to happen. In fact, it would take a whole new post to outline the flaws in my reasoning. But the basic point is that the Own the Podium funding is a very significant increase and will have a significant impact, especially if the funding level can be maintained after the 2010 games.

March 30, 2005

Swimming Canada's New CEO

Another shoe has dropped at Swimming Canada, and maybe some stability is finally in store. Last November I wrote about the ongoing turmoil in the organization. The top staff position has been vacant for more than a year.

Last week Swimming Canada hired Pierre Lafontaine for the job. I'm guessing from the length of the job search that Lafontaine wasn't Swimming Canada's first choice, but he has good credentials, and he's young (only 48).

Lafontaine has been working as a high-level coach in Australia, and was successful there. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to his new role, which won't include much coaching. Can he handle the political and management pressures, and the lack of direct control over performance? Can he make the funding pitch to government that is so critical to success in Canada? Only time will tell. In his favour, he does appear to understand that there aren't going to be any quick fixes (a sentiment echoed by fired head coach Dave Johnson). On the other hand, he still has a lot of optimism, and that won't hurt either.

March 27, 2005

Tournament Time-Wasting: King Calls Bullshit

One of my favourite sporting events happens at this time of year. So far I haven't written anything about the NCAA basketball tournaments, but why shouldn't I? The NCAA is probably the world's last bastion of stupid amateur status regulations. It is also the main development system for high-performance Olympic athletes in the U.S. I plan to spend some time digging into the "big picture" of NCAA sports in the future, but writing about individual outcomes or teams is not really in keeping with the spirit of this blog.

Recently, though, one of my favourite sportswriters did a story that I thought I would pass along. Every year at this time somebody calculates how much productivity is going to be lost due to the men's and women's basketball tournaments. The papers usually run this story without any critical thought, under headlines like "Estimated $889.6 million lost watching TV, Webcasts of NCAA." Last week King Kaufman at completely dismantled the analysis that went into the calculation.

It warms my heart.

March 24, 2005

Still Living With the Consequences

Last drug story for this week, I promise. This concerns a story that doesn't get enough attention in North America, which is the state-run doping programme of the German Democratic Republic. Last week, a group of athletes who were given performance-enhancing substances without their knowledge — some of them were only 10 years old at the time — launched a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical manufacturer.

This is one of the very few instances in the world where a systematic and scientific doping programme has been fully exposed. Unfortunately, although a lengthy investigation resulted in 356 convictions, none of those involved have really been punished for giving thousands of young Germans illegal drugs without consent.

And now some of those athletes are suing … for 10,000 Euros each? That's it!? I'm not presuming that the pharmaceutical company knew what was going on, or that any damages will be awarded. But can you imagine how many millions we'd be talking about if this had happened in the U.S.A?

The Next Big (Banned) Thing?

While we're on the topic of drugs (again), here's a story from this summer that I completely missed. Apparently female swimmers from Stanford were seen wearing patches on their shoulders at the U.S. Olympic trials, and it kicked off quite a commotion in the NCAA.

The patch is apparently the LifeWave Energy Enhancer, described by the maker as containing "only amino acids and water-based solutions." A slippery-sounding description — but maybe it's only protecting the company's intellectual property. In the end, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency found nothing wrong with the patches.

Here's another interesting quote from Dave Schmidt, president of LifeWave:

I can understand why coaches or athletes would have questions, because this technology is very new, very different. I think it's a very good thing for sports. It's a way for athletes to improve their performance and not endanger their health.

Well, it's debatable whether substances are banned because they endanger athletes' health. My bet is, if LifeWave Energy Enhancers have a significant performance-enhancing effect, they will be banned. If they don't have any effect, then everybody will stop using them. Either way, I don't think LifeWave is going to get rich selling these things to Olympic athletes.

Kenteris Story Continued

Gee, it's been so long (almost two months) since we talked about Kostas Kenteris. And here he is in the news again this week.

First, Kenteris and Ekaterina Thanou were forgiven by the Greek athletics federation for missing their drug test just before the 2004 Olympics. The pair escaped on a technicality, as their federation ruled that they were not properly informed of the test according to IOC rules.

The official bad guy turns out to be their coach, Christos Tzekos, who is banned (whatever that means) for four years for obstructing the testing process. Apparently he was to blame for the missed test in Athens and Kenteris' other no-shows. He was, however, cleared of more serious charges of trading in illegal substances or encouraging athletes to take illegal substances. Little wonder that Tzekos described himself as "very happy" with the decision.

Otherwise, reaction has been almost universally negative. Even the Greek fans found it tough to swallow. The head of the Greek athletics federation says that he expects their decision to be overturned and that Kenteris and Thanou will probably never run again. The IAAF is still considering an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Dick Pound, in typical we-always-get-our-man fashion, says that WADA will appeal if the IAAF doesn't.

Kenteris himself, meanwhile, still maintains his innocence and says that he's getting ready for Beijing. Or maybe, now that we know he wasn't guilty after all, we could just have a do-over.

March 22, 2005

So Complicated Even the British Can't Keep it Straight

Yesterday I found this story about a horrific on-water collision that will immediately remind Canadian sports fans of Silken Laumann.

Most international regatta courses that are shared between rowers and flatwater canoeists and kayakers have posted rules about traffic direction. The rowers circulate in one direction, and the canoes and kayaks circulate in the opposite direction. That way, at least the paddlers can see what's coming! Rowers take these circulation rules quite seriously, since they need protection from colliding with each other. Paddlers, on the other hand, tend to have a more casual attitude toward navigation, and ignore the rules when it suits them.

Walsh was a silver medallist in Athens in the canoe/kayak slalom men's kayak singles event. If he was out training on the flatwater course in his slalom boat then he was pretty much a sitting duck on the water. Slalom boats are made to be maneuverable, not fast. My guess would be that Walsh was also circulating in the "wrong" direction, either because he was unfamiliar with the convention or because he ignored it. He would have been making enough noise that he couldn't hear the relatively quiet and speedy rowing scull coming up behind him. She might have hit him going 15 km/h or more.

It's curious that the incident is twice described as a "hit-and-run." Does that mean that the female rower left the scene of the accident? It's pretty hard to run over a slalom kayak and not notice it. Or maybe the expression means something different in Britain?

While we're talking about the meanings of words, allow me to note that the British are apparently no better than anybody else at grasping the not-so-subtle distinction between rowing and kayaking. Notice the use of the words "kayak" and "canoe" as synonyms, and the description of the female in the single "skull" as "another rower." Folks, a kayak is not a canoe; a kayaker is not a rower, and doesn't row; and this kind of scull is spelled with a c, not a k.

March 20, 2005

A Major Recalculation

Good news: I have a reader — one who is not, for a change, a member of my family, or somebody I've shared a house with.

Bad news: said reader has pointed out that my last two posts (part 1, part 2) contain a gigantic factual error.

The federal government has committed $55M to the Own the Podium program over five years, not each year for the next five years. So all of my assessments are off by, oh, say a factor of five. I guess I can't just let that slide by. I am tempted, this being an electronic medium, to go back and correct the posts and pretend this never happened, but I have decided to let the posts stand and post this as a correction.

Requiring a correction in part 1: $11M per year is a significant amount, but not the qualitative change that $55M would have been. It's about 25% more than Sport Canada gave to all winter sport NSFs in 2002-2003.

Requiring a correction in part 2: if we assume that the balance between summer and winter sports is going to be maintained at its historical 2.5-to-1 ratio, then a summer version of Own the Podium would be in the ballpark of $27M per year. That's a lot, but not out of the question given $140M per year in total funding.

March 18, 2005

Following the Money, Part 2

Note: this post contains a factual error. Read the correction.

Yesterday (read part 1) I wrote about Sport Canada funding and spending trends from 1995 to 2003. The discussion was motivated by the recent federal budget, and the subsequent announcement that $55M a year in Sport Canada money would be contributed to the Own the Podium program for winter Olympic sports.

There were two main conclusions:

  • Funding for amateur sport in Canada has been on a steady increase since reaching a low point in 1997-98.
  • Most of the increased spending has been directed to the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP), and National Sport Federations (NSFs) for summer and winter Olympic sports.

Figure 2

Figure 2 — Sport Canada funding for Olympic sports, distribution 1995-2003

Figure 2 — Sport Canada funding distribution for Olympic sports, 1995-2003 (click to enlarge).

Today I'd like to talk about how that "Olympic Sports" total is divided between the various organizations that receive it. Figure 2 (inset right) shows the same eight years as we saw in Figure 1, but this time I've only plotted the Olympic Sports category. I've broken it down into individual recipients, with the blue bars representing winter sports, the red-to-yellow bars representing summer sports, and the black cap at the top representing the amount given to the COC and a couple of other organizations. The vertical axis is now the percentage of the total Olympic Sports spending, because I want to look at how the distribution changed between 1995 and 2003.

The primary conclusion seems to be that the distribution didn't change much. There hasn't been, at least up until 2003, a big shift in the emphasis on winter or summer sports; the proportions have remained about the same. Summer sport NSFs took a bigger piece of the pie in 2000-01, a summer Olympic year, and a smaller proportion in 1997-98, a winter Olympic year. Interestingly, 1996-97, also a summer Olympic year, does not appear to have been a particularly good year for summer sports.

We could use the past to do a simplistic forecast for the future. If Own the Podium dumps $55M into winter Olympic sports each year, then one of two things is going to happen. Either the current summer-winter balance (about 2.5 to 1) is going to shift significantly, or the federal government is going to come up with $135M per year for the summer version of Own the Podium. Since the current plan is $140M per year of total funding, I don't believe that the second option is viable.

Within the winter and summer categories, I would also conclude that there has not been a major change in the distribution of money. For the summer sports, I have broken out the ten largest recipients, which get about half of the total summer Olympic NSF money. Similarly for winter sports, the top four NSFs get about half of the money, and nothing changed dramatically between 1995 and 2003.

It's also interesting to examine the list of top recipient NSFs. In general, this reads like the list of sports where Canada is competitive; or in the case of swimming and alpine skiing, where we once-were-and-could-be-again competitive. The glaring exceptions are the three summer team sport NSFs, where we can't even qualify consistently. I suspect that this is deceiving for a couple of reasons. First of all, the volleyball NSF also includes beach volleyball, where Canada has been competitive. More importantly, the Sport Canada contribution includes all funding for NSFs, not just the part that is allocated to high-performance or national team programs. As a general rule, the high-performance programs consume the lion's share of the money. However, it is possible that a sport like basketball, with very high grassroots participation, may spend a bigger fraction of its funding on development and participation at the local club level. In this sense the comparison between NSFs is not entirely fair.

I was surprised, however, to see in this story that the summer sport NSFs are going to "try especially hard" to obtain increased funding for team sports. That seems like a dubious strategy for winning more medals, to me. To succeed in any team sport, you need to develop and support a large number of athletes (say 20 or so), which is expensive, and then there is only one medal at stake. I also think that Canada, with its expansive geography and sparse population, is starting at a natural disadvantage in large-team sports. It would make more sense, if your goal is simply to win more medals at the summer Olympics, to focus your funding on individual or small-team sports where there are a large number of medals available.

March 17, 2005

Following the Money, Part 1

Note: this post contains a factual error. Read the correction.

Well, it's been over a month since I posted anything with a graph in it, so it's about time I got back into some good old-fashioned numerical analysis. Today and tomorrow I'll try to provide some recent history on Canadian amateur sports funding.

Just before the Canadian federal budget was released, I reported that funding for amateur sports would be increased to $140M dollars a year. That increase was announced in the budget, and the $140M number was accurate, although it seems to be difficult to establish exactly what the previous baseline was. Some in the media have stated that the $140M is "locked in" until 2010, but of course the federal budget is approved by parliament on a yearly basis; at best you could call the long-term spending forecast a plan, but not a certainty.

A few days after the budget speech, the Minister of State for Sport announced that the government intends to allocate $55M of the $140M to the Own the Podium program. The Own the Podium program is a financial and strategic plan to get Canada to the top of the medal table at the 2010 Winter Olympics. I am on the record as a supporter but a doubter, which I suppose makes me as Canadian as the next guy. The other contributers were hoping for a $55M stake from the federal government, and apparently they were persuasive enough.

Figure 1

Figure 1 — Sport Canada funding, 1995-2003

Figure 1 — Sport Canada funding contributions, 1995-2003 (click to enlarge).

With all the political spin going on, many athletes are confused about what this really means. How much money is new money, and how will it be spent?

Finding out the answer to the first question is actually more difficult than you might think. Although the federal budgets of the last decade are all online, the Sport Canada budget is not usually broken out as a single line item. Furthermore, the budget never tells the whole story, since the government often makes mid-year announcements of additional funding for amateur sport.

Fortunately, we can find out in some detail what Sport Canada actually spent in any given fiscal year, because it's all online here. It's a bit of a mess, because the format and the accounting seem to change from year to year, but I've spent a few hours wading through all that for you.

Figure 1 shows the total contributions and grants distributed by Sport Canada for eight fiscal years, starting in 1995-96. I have divided the spending into eleven categories, represented by different colours on the graph:

  • Olympic Sports: contributions to the national sports federations (NSFs) for sports that are in the summer or winter Olympics, and contributions to a handful of multi-sport organizations (MSOs) that focus on high-performance athletes. I'll discuss the composition of this category in part 2 of this post.
  • Athlete Assistance Program (AAP): contributions directly to national team athletes, through living allowances and tuition grants.
  • Domestic Activities & Events: contributions to events and organizations with a national scope. This category is dominated by contributions to the Canada Games, at more than $4.5M per year.
  • International Events: contributions for bidding on and hosting international multi-sport events, like the Pan American Games, or international single-sport events, like the World Athletics Championships. More on the details below.
  • Sports Advocacy: contributions to organizations that represent a particular sports constituency. The lion's share goes to the Coaches Association of Canada ($2.4M per year) and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport ($2.1M per year).
  • National Sports Centres: contributions to the operations of Canada's national and provincial high-performance training centres.
  • Non-Olympic Sports: contributions to the NSFs of sports that are not in the summer or winter Olympics. The biggest single recipient is Rugby Canada, followed by Water Ski Canada, Squash Canada, Racqetball Canada, and Football Canada.
  • Sport Science: contributions to research, sport science, and medicine, including anti-doping efforts.
  • Paralympic Sports: contributions to NSFs or MSOs for athletes with a disability.
  • Other Government: contributions to other government agencies.
  • Miscellaneous Small Projects: contributions to one-time events or projects, usually under $100K. An interesting aside in this category: in 2002-2003 Sport Canada contributed $100K to a group called Les Internationaux du Sport de Montréal. That firm has been implicated in the neverending Canadian sponsorship scandal.

So what does the graph tell us? First of all, International Events spending is highly variable and distorts the overall trend. The biggest fluctuations were due to two major events. The 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg consumed a total of $42M, peaking at $23M in 1997-98. The 2001 World Athletic Championships in Edmonton took $38M of Sport Canada money from 2000 to 2002.

If we ignore the International Events spending, we can see that funding for amateur sport bottomed out in 1997-98, and then showed a steady increase for five years. All categories have seen some benefit, but the biggest absolute increases have come in the AAP and the funding for Olympic sports. The biggest relative increase has been in funding for the national sport centres, which were only in their infancy at the beginning of this period.

The government has already committed to an increase to the AAP living allowance, and a huge chunk of funding to Olympic sports — winter Olympic sports in particular, although the summer sports are going to come up with their own pitch. One point that should be made is that the Own the Podium budget is a lot of money. There are a couple of years missing between the end of the graph and the new budget, but $55M is nearly twice what Sport Canada spent on Olympic sports in 2002-2003. Granted, some of the $55M probably fits in the Sport Science category, and possibly some will go to the National Sport Centres, but remember that the graph shows total NSF funding, and some of that is spent on grassroots development and participation, not elite athletes. Furthermore, it includes summer sports, which are not part of Own the Podium. Any way you look at it, implementing Own the Podium is going to mean a big increase in government financial support.

Next time, I'll talk a bit more about the distribution of the Olympic sports money.

March 16, 2005

Paralympic Scheduling Conflict

Yesterday marked one year to go before the opening of the 2006 Commonwealth Games, which will run from the 15th to the 26th of March. The unusual timing is due to the fact that this summer sports competition is being held in Melbourne, Australia.

There was an interesting story on CBC radio this morning pointing out that the dates overlap with the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, which are being held from the 10th to the 19th of March.

You'll notice, if you explore the web site above, that the Commonwealth Games are very progressive when it comes to athletes with a disability. The events are integrated into the schedule and the athletes are awarded the same medals as everybody else. No other major games are as inclusive and, as a result, the Commonwealth Games carry a great deal of prestige. For winter sport athletes, the Paralympic Winter Games are a rare opportunity to compete on the world stage. Although the Winter Paralympics are still relatively small, there are efforts underway to add more sports. Furthermore, the 2006 edition are being held during (not following) the Winter Olympics — I believe for the first time ever — which should have helped to catch the world's attention.

It's a shame that these two events are going on concurrently. Even more than most amateur athletes, athletes with a disability only get into the spotlight once every four years. Due to the scheduling conflict, the media coverage will be stretched even thinner than it would be otherwise.

It would be tempting to accuse the Commonwealth Games organizers of being insensitive to athletes with a disability, except for two things. One, they have a great track record in that regard; and two, the 2006 Commonwealth Games are also in conflict with the Winter Olympics. My guess is that they just don't think about winter sports much at all. Which makes sense, really, since only one Commonwealth nation makes any significant investment in winter sports.

More Uniform Fluff

Earlier I made some mildly derogatory remarks about Zellers, and I may have to eat those words. According to this story, Zellers outfitted the Canadian team at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and those uniforms were voted the nicest of the games in a poll of athletes.

I am unable to confirm the part about the poll.

March 06, 2005

Less About Canada

I suppose it's natural that my thoughts and ideas would have a Canadian bias, but recently I've been on all-Canadian-sports-all-the-time. In the faint hope of attaining some balance, here are a few recent stories from around the world.

Insert Your Country Name Here
The Athens Review, a report into the success of Ireland at the 2004 games, called for substantial, sustained and targeted investment over many years to ensure Olympic and Paralympic success … It claimed Irish sport needed a restructuring of funding for top athletes and a more cohesive partnership between sporting bodies in order to compete at a higher level. — The Evening Echo, Cork, Ireland.

Except for the words "Ireland" and "Irish," this could have been written about any one of two dozen countries.

The Motivating Effect of Prizes

Many countries offer their Olympic athletes cash prizes for winning medals. It turns out India is one of those countries. Who knew?

I never really understood the theory behind this practice, anyway — are Olympic athletes suffering from a lack of motivation? It doesn't seem to be doing much for India, for sure … they've won a total of three Olympic medals since 1980.

Note: Rs 23 lakh is 2,300,000 rupees, or roughly $65,000 Canadian.

African Bid Intentions Announced

Well, the Kenyans are still promising that they are going to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic games. No big news there, since they've made public noises about it before (post). More bizarre is this story that Ghana intends to bid for the Summer Olympics, too … in 2032. At least they won't be doing everything at the last minute …

Modern Greek Proverb: Haste Makes Waste

… which is something the Greeks are going to regret, apparently, according to these two (one, two) stories.

Also in Greece, the new president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee has had to abolish four "illegitimate" winter sports federations. The federations were allegedly invented just to create more puppet votes within the HOC.

Nobody Loves A Superpower

Finally, here's an interesting article about the US Olympic Committee, its budget, and what a mess the organization has been in the past. So not only have they been kicking everybody's butt at the Olympics, but they've been doing it with one hand tied behind their back. Typical, eh?

Olympic Programme Fact and Fiction

There's always talk about adding (golf) or subtracting (baseball) sports from the Olympic programme, and that will always be the case. I have some strong opinions on this issue, and some day I am going to write more on this subject. But for today, Around The Rings is reporting that the IOC Programme Commission has been "stripping bare" the programme at their meeting this week. I don't know exactly what this means, and I'm not an Around the Rings subscriber, but it sounds like the programme commission has some big plans. I guess we'll find out soon enough, as the commission will submit their final report in a few weeks.

On a related note, I saw a story on Yahoo! News today suggesting that the next addition to the Olympic program should be ... poker. This is what happens when you broadcast that much Texas Hold'Em on ESPN! On closer examination, the source of the story is this public relations firm — it's essentially an advertisement for an on-line poker service, dressed up to look like a news story.

March 02, 2005

Own The Podium — What Are The Chances?

So the COC wants to win 35 medals in 2010; in other words, they want to finish first in the medal table. At the same time, they've set clear priorities for supporting certain sports over others, a decision which I support, but some others do not.

Can this work? Given Canada's sporting strengths and weaknesses, is it even possible to finish first in the medal table?

The table below lists the winter Olympic sports, with the total number of medal events in 2002, and the priority (1, 2, or 3) assigned to each sport in the Own the Podium plan. There were 78 medal events in 2002; that number may change slightly by 2010, as events are added and subtracted from the program. The last column gives a vague impression (mine) of Canada's medal chances in the sport. This is, admittedly, based on current successes, which may or may not be valid in five years time.

Canada's winter sports priorities and available medals.
Discipline Medal Events OTP Priority Canada's chances
Curling 2 1 Very Good
Figure Skating 4 1 Fair
Ice Hockey 2 1 Very Good
Speed Skating 10 1 Very Good
S.T. Speed Skating 8 1 Very Good
Total Priority 1 26 1 Very Good
Alpine Skiing 10 2 Improving
Cross Country Skiing 13 2 Improving
Freestyle Skiing 4 2 Good
Snowboard 3 2 Good
Total Priority 2 30 2 Improving?
Biathlon 8 3 Poor
Bobsleigh 3 3 Fair
Luge 3 3 Very Poor
Nordic Combined 3 3 Very Poor
Skeleton 2 3 Fair
Ski Jumping 3 3 Very Poor
Total Priority 3 22 3 Very Poor

So, how is Canada planning to get to 35 medals?

Although Canada is historically a strong performer in all of the priority 1 sports, the total number of medal events is only 26. I think that 20 medals in this category would be an overwhelming, stunning success. Canada is dominant in ice hockey and curling, but there are only four medals up for grabs. Let's assume that we can hold onto one in figure skating; that makes five.

How tough would it be to win 15 medals in the two speed skating disciplines? Very tough. In Salt Lake City, Canada won 3 medals in long track and 6 in short track. The top countries in long track (Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S.) won eight medals each; the top country in short track (China) won seven. The top combined total in 2002 was 11 by the U.S. So to get to 15 Canada would have to be the best in the world in both disciplines. This is not an impossibility — we're already pretty good — but it's a big step up.

On the other side of the coin, it's pretty clear that Canada can't count on getting any medals in priority 3 sports. We once won a medal in ski jumping — in 1924. In biathlon, all three of Canada's medals were won by one athlete, long since retired. There has never been a Canadian medallist in luge or nordic combined. There are Canadian contenders in bobsleigh and skeleton, but that talent pool is aging and not very deep. Now that Own the Podium has placed a lower priority on these sports, they are not going to get the funding they would need to make a sudden turnaround.

That leaves priority 2, where all hope of reaching 35 medals rests on the cross-country and alpine ski teams. Canada will probably pick up a couple of medals in snowboard and freestyle, but there just aren't that many medals to go around. You can't be the top country at the winter Olymics without a top-tier cross-country or alpine team — preferably both.

Canada has won a total of one medal in cross-country skiing. Ever. We have had some recent success, but that's all relative. It's great that Canada's atheletes are now legitimate contenders on the world stage, but can we translate that into a handful of medals by 2010? I have my doubts. The top country in Salt Lake City was Norway, with 11 medals. Italy won six.

The Canadian alpine ski team, meanwhile, has won ten medals in the history of the winter Olympics ― the last in 1994. Recently, there has been a clear upward trend, but consider this: the top country in 2002 was world powerhouse Austria, with nine medals. Nobody else won more than four.

Given the numbers, there are only so many ways that you can get to 35. So here's what has to happen to accomplish the Own the Podium goals:

  • Cover all the bases in ice hockey and curling (4 medals)
  • Make sure you pick up a handful of medals in figure skating, freestyle, and snowboard (4 medals)
  • Become the world's best speed skating nation, for long and short track (15 medals)
  • Become a top-two nation in cross-country skiing (6 medals)
  • Become a top-two nation in alpine skiing (6 medals)
I'll be accused of being "too Canadian" for saying so, but: there's almost zero chance that this is going to happen in five years.

Of course, it is still worthwhile to make the attempt, in my opinion, and Canada's winter Olympic performance will almost certainly improve as a result. I can see the COC's difficulty, really: you can't step up to the microphone and boldy state, "our goal is to finish second in 2010." Sometimes, to be successful, you have to set an unrealistic goal. I wonder, though, if the public really understands just how unrealistic this one is.

Hudson's Bay Company to Outfit Canadian Olympians

The COC announced today that the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) will be providing the clothing and luggage for the Canadian Olympic team in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012.

Canada's winter Olympic teams wore HBC gear for more than three decades, apparently including the famous Hudson's Bay Blanket Jacket on at least one occasion in the sixties. But in recent years Roots has really sparked the public interest and turned the Olympic uniform into a very popular line of merchandise. Roots will still be providing several Olympic team uniforms in 2006, including the U.S. team.

My wager is that our athletes won't be thrilled about the change. The Bay is nowhere near as cool as Roots, no matter how you look at it — and don't even talk to me about Zellers. Sure, Roots made a few boners now and then — I really didn't like that hockey-jersey podium suit in 2000 — but overall the clothing was attractive and well-made. Hopefully HBC can maintain that standard.