As Canadian sport struggles with victory and athlete well-being, Norway is a possible role model


“We don’t do this for the medals. Don’t get me wrong, we like to win, but it should be done the right way.”

Given the current turmoil among athletes in high-performance sport in Canada, this statement from Norway’s top Olympic official, Tore Ovrebo, sounds profound.

With the word “joy” embedded in its sporting values, the northern country, which has less than a fifth of Canada’s population, has topped the medal table at the past two Winter Olympics.

Norway won a total of medals (37) and gold medals (16) at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, compared to 26 for Canada, including four gold medals.

Joy is clearly lacking in some areas of Canadian high performance sport. An unprecedented number of athletes are demanding a cultural shift from the organizations that oversee them.

New federal sports minister Pascale St-Onge says there have been accusations of mistreatment, sexual abuse or embezzlement directed by at least eight national sports organizations in her first five months in power and described the situation as a crisis.

The trampling of the mental and emotional health of athletes in pursuit of the money to win medals is a common thread in the athletes’ grievances.

Putting Athlete Welfare First

Medals as a measure of success aren’t supposed to be the problem. The thorny question is how to pursue the glory of international sport with the welfare of athletes at the forefront, while holding those who are part of the high performance sport system, including athletes, accountable for the more than 200 million dollars that Canadian taxpayers spend there every year.

Canada, ranked among the top three countries in the world in winter sports and among the top 12 in summer sports, is a measure of success that people may understand, but how it was achieved is in a moment of calculation.

“Using [medals] as a measure of success that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be the only measure of success,” said Rosie MacLennan, two-time Olympic trampoline champion.

“How do we move from a short-term, peak performance-focused incentive system to one that enables peak performance and high performance environments while supporting holistic athlete wellness and health in the whole system? Probably easier said than done.”

Norway and Canada have a lot in common in Olympic and Paralympic sport, including athletes struggling financially to pursue their dreams.

“The normal top Norwegian youngster is not easy,” Olympiatoppen manager Ovrebo said.

“They are driven by their drive and curiosity to find out how good they can become. This makes an even stronger ethical obligation for us to treat them well.

“Health will always take priority over performance in the event of a conflict.”

Strengthening the quality of relationships within national teams is one of Olympiatoppen’s three stated core tasks, alongside strong daily training environments and the preparation and execution of competitions.

“National teams are not measured by the number of medals alone,” Ovrebo said. “It’s the way they treat each other.

“What we’re doing here is developing humans and sport is just the arena to do that. They’re human beings first and they’re athletes second.”

This philosophy is attractive to Canadian athletes.

“I think it’s a fantastic way of doing things,” Olympic rugby player Nathan Hirayama said. “You can see better results with players, athletes who feel their best interests are taken care of.

“If sport is something we want to nurture, we want these athletes to have the best possible careers. We want them to feel like giving back when they’ve been in sport and not come away with a bitter taste in their lives. the mouth.”

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Changing culture takes time. The career of athletes is not long.

And do Canadian athletes trust the organizations that run high performance sport – Sport Canada, Own the Podium, the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and more than 60 national sport federations – to change a culture that these organizations helped create?

“My belief is that yes, this can change. It will unfortunately take time and also a real need to understand what the underlying root causes are and what the issues are, and who is ultimately responsible for these changes,” MacLennan said.

University of Toronto professor emeritus of sport and public policy Bruce Kidd, a middle-distance runner in the 1964 Olympics, calls for a loosening of the ties between performance and funding.

“Funding is dependent on performance goals which are all about the podium,” Kidd said.

“There needs to be a funding formula that recognizes the values ​​of the Physical Activity and Sport Act and contributes to those outcomes. I would include performance as one of the criteria, but far from the criteria The highest.

“I hasten to point out that no one is saying we don’t want to be very good at sport. Our athletes and coaches are competitive. You can treat someone like a human, you can treat someone like an individual by development and still doing very, very well in the sport.”

“We just need to buy into it”

Sports psychologist Carla Edwards, who works with athletes as a mental health counsellor, believes Canadian athletes can be good and win at the same time.

“The problem is how we got there. How we get there may change,” she said. “Norway have proven that. We just have to stick with it.

“It can be a change of a few years where we have to build a new system and understand a way of being. I believe that if we do that, in a few years we will see that translate. Even in a way abstract, athletes will be healthier, which really should be our goal.

“But acknowledging the reality of funding is not really the goal of many organizations.”


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