With the ongoing branding of Own the Podium (OTP) being big on swagger and small on big-picture vision for Canada’s young athletes, I now have renewed hope that a women, Anne Merklinger OTP’s new CEO, might bring some womanly wisdom, void of that archaic male macho gene, to the position and think again about how our national cheerleader chooses to inspire Canadians to be a world leader in high-performance sport.
The mission of OTP is to lead the development of Canadian sports to achieve sustainable podium performances at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Translated, that means raise dollars that provide better coaches, better facilities and support a better fulltime training regime for our athletes. The thinking is world-class coaches combined with state-of-the-art equipment and resources will enable our Olympic dreamers to make real their aspirations to win medals—namely, gold ones.
Is this a worthwhile initiative? You bet it is. I wish it had been around when I was a National Team athlete. However, is the branding misguided? Undoubtedly.
Although some might consider the notion that referring to OTP as “un-Canadian” is weak and old-fashioned, I choose to differ. You see the Canada that I was raised in would have considered such a statement as brash and arrogant, perhaps more aptly associated with some of our other international competitors. Furthermore, understanding the competitive motto of the school where I currently coach and attended as a young boy—Ridley College—might provide you with some context as to why my reaction is so strong. When we competed for our School, it was understood that “if you lose you say nothing, if you win you say less.” When my coaches weren’t reminding me of that, my dad was. It formed the basis of every competition I ever entered.
When Pierre de Coubertin brought the Modern Games to fruition at the turn of the 20th century, he did so with the notion that they would be a celebration of the best athletic performances that amateur athletes from around the world could bring to the competition. In fact, the motto that he insisted the Olympic movement adapt when translated means simply “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” De Coubertin also introduced an Olympic Creed that all athletes would abide by when competing. It stated, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle… .” No mention of “owning the podium” there?
During the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the offensiveness of the OTP slogan became quite apparent to many Canadians when we, the host nation, put out the OTP welcome mat to the world. As the media built-up the expected medal count for Canada, we realized quite quickly the message to the attending countries—our guests—was, “Welcome to our Olympics! Now lets get started because we’re going to kick your backside and win as many medals as possible!” Not exactly in the spirit of that which de Coubertin had envisioned.
Imagine if de Coubertin had attended the opening ceremonies in 2010 in Vancouver? He, like everyone else there, would have felt the awkwardness and seemingly inappropriateness of our Canadian motto—like some uninvited guest who didn’t mesh with everyone else at the party—like the Japanese, for instance, who walked in waving Canadian flags as well as their own. Or, the Georgians who received a standing ovation in honour of their fallen teammate. “Own the Podium” seemed so out of place then, so wrong in that moment.
However, for me, the most unfortunate and obvious pit-fall of the OTP perspective is that it is so counterintuitive to what our athletes should be thinking leading up to and just prior to their competition—for example, this summer in London. Ask any sports-psychologist and they will tell you that focusing on the win or the outcome of a competition just before it begins is the last thing that will support your best performance. Instead, an athlete should be relaxed and focused on the process of what their best performance looks like.
Listen to most Canadian sports broadcasters and you’d think our nation has gone through an entire National identity shift over the last number of years! Apparently, there’s a new attitude in town that’s been spreading across our country regarding the intention of our young athletes. Somehow, they have discovered a new swagger brimming with confidence and a mind-set that is about winning and not just, God forbid, doing their best. I would agree that quiet confidence is an essential ingredient in any pursuit of excellence. However, to suggest that appearing cocky and walking with an intimidating swagger helps someone outperform his or her competition is misguided. It’s my belief that the good ones, the really good ones, don’t need the swagger or the attitude; they know intimately the price of excellence and they are more than willing to pay that price when called upon.
However, if you think about it, herein lies the great paradox that is OTP. You see by OTP encouraging our athletes to focus on only winning, they are in fact inhibiting our athletes, tying their emotional hands and feet, and distracting them from potentially achieving their best performances and ultimately winning. As the Director of Rowing at Ridley, we are building our program on the basis that the journey, how an athlete arrives at a competition, has more to do with how they perform and ultimately feel about that performance than anything else. Tim Coy, a good friend, ex-coxie of mine and fellow coach once told one of his crews that the outcome of a race will in no way define the success of a season. How perfect is that?
Unfortunately, the frequent misunderstanding of a journey-centered philosophy in sport is that it is perceived as being soft or uncompetitive. I believe it’s anything but that. When you encourage athletes to take care of all of the things that they can control, their fitness and skill level to name two significant ones, you increase the chances of those athletes showing up on race-day and outperforming their competitors. But the bonus is if they have the race of their lives and still come up short in the standings, there remains something to celebrate—a great race, a tremendous effort and a memorable journey. And, ultimately, I believe that is the beauty of sport—the power of sport.
My suggestion to OTP is that they change their mantra to embrace the notion that the effectiveness of the journey of our athletes, and nothing more, will determine their success on the world’s stage. I believe we should keep the same initiative, but rebrand it—calling it “Olympic Journey 2012, Olympic Journey 2014” and so on. I see this as an opportunity for Canada to become a world leader in how athletes are prepared for, supported during and assisted in how they transition out of an Olympic Games. Of course, the great irony here is that in doing this we absolutely increase our chances of “Owning the Podium”. Hmm, a win-win situation—not bad for a non-competitive approach!