Making the case for Own the Podium 

Officials, athletes say Canada in a stronger position in more sports than ever before

 

Canadian athletes are using their time in the spotlight to make a case for continued funding, thanking Own The Podium at every opportunity.

Even the athletes who have finished off the podium have nothing but positive things to say about the program, which injected $117 million into Canadian winter sports over the past five years. Some $66 million in funding came from the federal government, with the remainder coming from the Vancouver Organizing Committee and its official sponsors, the government of B.C. and initiatives like the Hudson's Bay Company's red mittens campaign.

The federal government has pledged to continue funding winter sports through Own The Podium to the tune of $11 million a year, a third of what Own The Podium has requested.

"Without Own The Podium, we probably wouldn't even be here," said Manuel Osborne-Paradis after the men's downhill. "To have so many athletes who are contenders has never happened before. We're in the game because of it."

On the eve of the Games, sports minister Gary Lunn explained that the decision to limit funding was purely a result of tight government budgets.

"The prime minister has made it very clear," he told reporters. "He is not going to raise taxes and we have to get back to balanced budgets. There is no new money out there.

"It's going to be difficult. It's not just sport, it's every single ministry."

He also said that the Canadian team's performance would not influence the government's decision, although national sports organizations know that their own performance during the Games will ultimately determine how much of the $11 million they can hope to receive.

The athletes themselves are using every opportunity to make a case for more funding.

Mogul skiing silver medallist Jennifer Heil said she has never felt so well-supported and that the program helped her to come back from injury and contend for an Olympic medal. Fellow mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau, the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal on home soil, told reporters the next day that Own The Podium made a huge difference. He took the time to explain to reporters all the ways the program assisted the team.

Alpine skier Erik Guay had a solid Olympics, placing fifth in the both the downhill and super G events, missing the podium in the super G by just three one-hundredths of a second.When asked by reporters, he said it was probably too soon to judge Own The Podium.

"There's been a real difference in a few short years," he said. "It was nice to see the federal government put this initiative together for Vancouver, but the reality of it is is that it might have been a bit short - sometimes it takes a few more years than that to create champions.

"I really hope (government) will keep putting funding into amateur sport, and that hopefully these Games will fire up Canadians to get excited about sports and athletes. I know I'm looking forward to Russia (2014 Games) already."

Emily Brydon has announced that she will retire from the Canadian Alpine Ski Team at the end of this season, but said Own The Podium should continue to move forward.

"(Own The Podium) has to start at the grass roots," she said. "It takes a while, you don't get Olympians overnight. It's going to be a process and I think in Russia we'll see the results as some of our younger athletes (who benefited from Own The Podium) step up. And if you look at the results in the World Cup this year and in past years our performance was substantially greater. That's a direct result of Own The Podium and the sponsors we've had."

Roger Jackson, the CEO of Own The Podium, acknowledged last week that Canada could fall short of its goal to finish with more medals than any other nation. As of Sunday morning, the United States was far ahead in the medals standings with 23 medals, including six gold. Germany was second with 14 medals. Canada stood fifth with eight medals, including four gold.

However, Jackson said it was too early to count Canada out as there were a lot of events remaining where Canada was fielding contenders.

"Gold medal performances like Jon Montgormery's are the reason we set such high goals," said Jackson in his blog. "Indeed, Own The Podium set a challenging goal by trying to be the top medal winner of these Olympic Games. Whether we achieve that is not the issue. It is that we try to be the best we can be."

Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said it would be tough for the Canadians to catch the American team but said that Canada still had solid medal hopefuls in the remaining events - and that any improvement over the 2006 Games would be worth celebrating.

At the 2006 Olympics Canada placed third in the medals standings with 24 medals.

A few athletes have even taken to blaming Own The Podium for results, as well as the extra pressure and expectations surrounding athletes at the Games.

Speed skater Denny Morrison said Own The Podium limited his opportunities to train against the top U.S. skaters at the Richmond Oval, making it hard to measure his progress. Norwegian skier Aksel Lund-Svindal said the decision to host Canada-only camps in Whistler made it impossible for the Canadians to study the techniques of other athletes and choose the best lines.

Double medallist Julia Mancuso of the U.S. wasn't too bothered by the decision to host a camp last year for the Canadian skiers: "If they opened up their hill to other athletes, then they would have had to let everybody come," she said. "From what I've heard the conditions were a lot different, the courses were different, so I doubt there was much home field advantage at all."

 

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