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Own the Podium looks past 2010

Program changes approach to high performance sports

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Own the Podium 2010 was never about money, although there's no question that funding has increased for every winter sports organization since the program was launched. But from the start OTP has been about resources - more camps, more coaches, leading technology, sports science, physical and mental training, and all around excellence.

In which case it's really all about 2010, and Canada's goal of placing first among nations in the medal tally at next year's Olympic Games, and third among nations at the Paralympic Winter Games.

According to OTP chief executive Roger Jackson, the results have been measurable in almost every sport since 2005, from the number of podium appearances to the number of athletes now competing at an elite level.

"There is a dilemma to try to pick one group or individual, there are so many ups and downs as we move forward with this trial but I think we can safely say that every sport is stronger than they were," he said.

Medals are only one way to measure success. For some sports organization an injury to a single athlete - like speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon this season, or mogul skier Jennifer Heil last season - can significantly lower a team's medal haul. For that reason Jackson likes to look at the big picture and the less glamorous victories that can take place within an organization, such as improvements to management, hiring new coaches and support staff like wax technicians, using the video analysis tools OTP has made available to improve form, holding more training camps, and attending more contests.

"My perspective is that it's not about one athlete's breakthrough as much as it is an improvement in the overall systems of support in sports, taking advantage... to improve the quality of the program," said Jackson.

OTP 2010 is an autonomous organization with $110 million in funding over five years, including $55 million in federal funding through Sport Canada, and $55 million from the Vancouver Organizing Committee through corporate and provincial support.

More than half that money is dedicated to national sports organizations and to shared resources for those organizations, such as experts in sports sciences. Spending is relative to Canada's chances for medals in particular sports, which means that a sport like freestyle, where Canada has solid contenders will get more funding than a sport like ski jumping.

This winter will be the biggest for OTP, with $4 million more in spending than last year.

OTP also funds a Top Secret program, developing new technologies and techniques to give Canadian athletes an edge in 2010. According to Jackson there are still about 20 active Top Secret research programs underway, down from 40 last season. Some of the new technologies are being tested in World Cup scenarios his season, although Jackson wasn't at liberty to get into specifics.

Some of the Top Secret technologies will be tangible. For example, the Canadian four-man bobsleigh team tested a new design developed by Bombardier, codenamed the Whistler Bomber, during the World Cup last week. Other technologies may not be as noticeable, like new methods of applying wax to snowboards or sharpening skis, or new methods of mental and physical preparation for athletes.

Everything will be revealed before the Games, when it's too late for the world to catch up.

As well, OTP helps fund the Home Field Advantage program, giving Canadian athletes and teams more opportunities to compete at 2010 venues.

Despite the progress, Canadian athletes still have a long way to go to be first in the Olympic medal total or third in the Paralympics.

At the Torino Olympics in 2006, Canada was third in the medal tally with 24 medals, one less than the U.S. and five less than Germany. But while Canada has surpassed the U.S. in overall World Cup medals since then, Germany continues to lead.

According to an OTP report of the 2007-08 season, Canada put in its best season ever with 74 athletes earning 184 World Cup medals in Olympic events. That was 49 more medals than the previous season, and put Canada second among nations in medal production.

The bad news is that Germany remains the top medal earner, and in 2007-08 earned 231 medals. Germany was also more rounded. Canada did not win any medals in biathlon, cross-country skiing, luge or Nordic combined; four sports where Germany combined for 128 medals. It should also be noted that there were no World Cup events in hockey or curling last season, sports where Canada is regularly on the podium.

Canada is on pace this season to do as well or better. Last week alone Canadian athletes won 28 medals, despite some ups and downs for sports and athletes. All of which makes Jackson confident heading into 2010.

"There are all kinds of reasons why teams go up or teams go down," said Jackson. "Someone like Jeremy (Wotherspoon) might have skated to seven, eight, 10 medals by this time of the year, which is one reason our total is down. But whatever issues teams have had, whether it's injuries or slumps, athletes are spending more time at Whistler and Vancouver training sites than they do at World Cups.

"It will be interesting in March and April to go through the results of last year to see if we met our goals, whether those are performance goals or indicators. The important thing is that everyone is prepped and focused and ready to go in February 2010."

Although OTP's mandate ends in 2010, Jackson said the organization would like to keep going in some form through future games - Winter Games through Own the Podium and Summer Games through the Road to Excellence program. National sports organizations, seeing the benefit of more funding and other resources, would also like OTP to become a permanent fixture.

"We have strong ambitions for the continuation of these programs," said Jackson. "The Own The Podium concept... has never been done before, and it's enormously powerful and successful, and we want to keep that going.

"It requires OTP to become more formalized in structure, with strong partnerships and brand new resources which are not currently on the horizon, and that primarily have to be achieved through the Government of Canada."

Jackson said it would require a formalized podium concept and board of directors, as well as legal status.

"And we have to make sure we're as well financed as programs in Australia, the U.K. and other countries with three to four times the amount of funding we're spending for the same purpose," said Jackson.

Some of the investments in Own The Podium won't be felt into the future, Jackson said, adding that the program was too limited in size to focus on junior team and development programs that will launch Canada's next wave of Olympic athletes.

"We're too thin on the ground right now, we do not have the money for junior athletes or junior national teams that will fill in the gaps between all the star athletes we currently have," said Jackson.

"In a lot of ways this is still just the beginning."

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