February 26, 2022

COVID-19 disruptions leave Team Canada unsure of medal targets for Beijing | CBC Sports

For the second consecutive Olympic Games, Canada’s athletes won’t have any formal medal targets.

Own The Podium — an organization founded in 2004 with a mission to put more Canadians on Olympic podiums — has recommended the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees again forego performance objectives.

The organization, which receives $66 million from taxpayers every year, says similar to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games the disruption to high-performance sport around the world — because of the COVID-19 pandemic — has made it difficult to project how Canada stacks up against other countries heading into Beijing 2022.

“While winter sport athletes may have been able to compete a little more than the summer sport athletes did heading into Tokyo, we as an organization didn’t feel we had sufficient competitive data to feel comfortable in recommending a performance objective,” Own The Podium CEO Anne Merklinger told CBC Sports.

A mix of cancelled events, countries choosing not to participate in events, and athletes unable to compete in events which did take place, have all factored into those data gaps, Merklinger said.

For instance, Canada’s sport organizations have had to improvise in some cases in terms of who would compete in Beijing — notably the mixed doubles curling duo of John Morris and Rachel Homan were handpicked after the Olympic trials were cancelled because of positive COVID-19 tests among the athletes scheduled to compete.

“There’s this invisible minefield laid out in front of you over the next few weeks, as you try to dodge COVID and not become positive in the next couple of weeks, while trying to train for one of the biggest moments of your life,” said Canadian figure skater Eric Radford told CBC Sports last month. 

“Preparing for any competition, and especially the Olympics is difficult enough. It’s one of the most stressful times of an athlete’s life.”

Thus is the reality facing other countries as well, leaving too many missing variables for Own The Podium to be able to come up with accurate medal projections.

“Even in the last six to eight weeks, many of Canada’s snow sports organizations made the decision to keep athletes in their bubbles and they chose not to go to perhaps the last World Cup or the last two World Cups,” Merklinger said.

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Freestyle skiing poised to podium

But even without formal medal targets, looking at how Own The Podium has divvied the $88 million in this Beijing quadrennial can give Canadians some indication into the country’s medal hopes at these Games.

Canada’s freestyle skiing program still hauls in the most money of any national sport organization, as it has since 2014 when slopestyle and halfpipe competitions were added to the Olympic program.

Freestyle Canada received a $2.3-million funding boost since Pyeongchang in 2018 — more than any other program — as the freestyle skiers have hauled in 16 of Canada’s 54 combined medals over the past two Winter Olympics, topping the podium eight times.

Canada’s snowboard team is the second-most funded program heading into Beijing, and is well-positioned to reach several podiums — most notably with Mark McMorris having won gold in slopestyle at the X Games in late January.

“The multi-medal sports are always the important contributors to the total medal ambitions for the country, and there are several of those that are well positioned,” Merklinger said.

“There are so many opportunities for promise and great performances from the athletes.”

The national skeleton program received the largest proportional funding boost of any sport organization this quadrennial, more than doubling its funding since 2018.

Merklinger said the boost is reinstating some of the program’s funding from the 2014 quadrennial — which was slashed by 79 per cent heading into Pyeongchang — as the depth of the women’s program improved dramatically in the lead-up to Beijing, thus increasing skeleton’s medal potential.

While almost all of Canada’s national sport organizations received some sort of funding boost over the past quadrennial, short-track speed skating had its funding slightly reduced. The program, which received the second-most funding heading into Pyeongchang, now sits sixth.

Merklinger said there’s nothing to read into the funding cut — given the reduction is less than two per cent — and funding is based on what the sport requests for specific years, along with the pool of medal potential athletes which can change from one quadrennial to the next.

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