When Own The Podium (OTP), one of the two main funding sources for Olympic sport national governing bodies, released their funding numbers to the sports last Monday, Biathlon Canada was in for both good news and bad news.
The good news: they are set to receive more money for the 2014-15 year than they had for the previous year.
“[It’s] $250,000 in high performance enhancement money, as opposed to $200,000 last season,” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay told FasterSkier. “We received an increase, which we are thankful for, and which we certainly feel we deserved – the performance of the athletes makes it clear that we deserve an increase.”
The bad news: it still wasn’t close to the amount of money that they requested. While Lindsay noted that not once has OTP ever matched their full request, it was potentially a surprise based on the last time Biathlon Canada went through this process in a post-Olympic year.
“In the beginning of this quad, I would have preferred to see a number that was more in line with what we received at the beginning of the previous quad, when we received $430,000 in performance enhancement money,” he said.
It’s notoriously tough to parse OTP decisions. For one thing, the organization almost certainly has a smaller overall budget to work with compared to when they were coming off a home Olympics with huge public enthusiasm for winter sports in particular. And funding priorities have shifted for plenty of other sports too, for instance, he said, from sports like speedskating and figure skating towards freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
But despite the acknowledged challenges for OTP, Lindsay wasn’t entirely pleased with the decision.
“I base my concern off of what I see as better results coming out of the Sochi Olympics than what we were able to achieve out of the Vancouver Olympics, and also the prospect for having multiple athletes capable of winning medals at World Championships and, with appropriate support 4 years down the line, at Olympic Games, is greater than the long-term prospects that we had post-Vancouver,” he explained.
In Sochi, Jean Philippe Le Guellec re-set his own best mark for a Canadian man by finishing 5th in the sprint, and Brendan Green and Nathan Smith notched finishes of 9th and 11th. On the women’s side, Megan Imrie became the first Canadian woman to qualify for the 30-racer mass start competition since the format was introduced to the Olympics. After the Games, Zina Kocher and Megan Heinicke finished 13th and 15th in World Cup races, while Rosanna Crawford collected her first top-10 in the last race of the season.
Of that group, only Le Guellec and Imrie have retired. The rest of the team is already back training toward 2015 World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland.
For OTP, though, only championship medals matter. And Canadian biathlon didn’t find any of those, despite some close calls.
Methods vs. Vision
The decision highlights a common issue faced by Nordic sports in North America: whether it’s cross country or biathlon, Nordic combined or jumping, in the U.S. or Canada, major funding bodies, be it OTP or, in the case of U.S. Nordic combined, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, don’t always see these programs as good investments.
And like many, Lindsay sees that as a problem for countries who set goals like winning the overall medal count or the gold medal count.
“If the goal is to really be on top of the podium, we need to be constantly re-evaluating where we are going to get our next medals,” he said. “I see great potential in the Nordic sports where a single athlete who is at that level – similar to where we had JP, where we have Nathan Smith and Brendan Green – can win multiple medals.”
He noted that there are 11 Olympic medals available in biathlon, and a similar number in cross country. Furthermore, athletes in both sports have shown that they have the potential to be on the podium, even if they haven’t done it at the Olympics yet.
“They can show up on the first day of competition and be legitimately in the hunt for a medal,” Lindsay asserted. “And then the next day of competition they can be legitimately in the hunt for a medal. On the fourth day of competition, they can legitimately be in the hunt for a medal. And also on the relay days. This seems to me like a multiple opportunities for an athlete to be on a podium, as opposed to some other sports where it’s all one shot, and potentially it’s over one day where if they have a bad day on that day, there’s no getting that day back.”
At the moment, OTP is not prioritizing that possibility, despite the fact that Jean Philippe Le Guellec was in the hunt for medals in two different races and the men’s relay team was also at the front of the pack for part of the race.
“I don’t think that anyone disagrees with the goals of Own the Podium,” Lindsay said. “The goals are clear: we want to win the Olympics. Or, that we want to have Canadian athletes on Olympic podiums. Nobody has a problem with this. The execution of those goals, and the side goals that pop up from time to time, are not quite as clear.”
As he perceives it, less popular and historically successful sports are not being seriously supported in working towards that goal.
“I think we’re going to get to a point eventually where Canada is going to put an athlete on every single sport’s podium at the Games,” he asserted. “But if we continue down the path we’re on, we’re potentially going to be missing out on a bunch of those podiums. That’s a significant chunk of the Games that we’re not putting as a priority… [and] the potential is there. All it takes is one superstar, and the resources dedicated to creating one superstar, to potentially have multiple medals at the Games. We saw this back in 1992 and 1994 where Biathlon Canada was able to put together the resources for Myriam Bédard, and this payed off tremendously for us with one bronze and two gold medals over those two Olympics.”
OTP is not the only funding source for Biathlon Canada, and there’s actually more money available. While OTP has made its decisions on high performance funding, they are still dividing up research and development money, which Lindsay hopes will help.
“The focus of R&D money for this next quad has moved away from the Nordic consortium model where each of the Nordic sports would be able to benefit from this technology and projects if they chose to, and has moved to a system where the R&D money will be allocated directly to the sports project by project again,” he said.
Biathlon made the most of the Nordic consortium going into Sochi, and had noticeably fast skis at the Laura stadium. If the organization can use this to appeal for more money from this pot, then their high performance budget will loosen slightly.
There’s also support from the other major funder in Canada, Sport Canada. One of its main methods for funding is to provide money for “carding” athletes, basically giving them a salary which allows them to train and travel without having to worry about having a job. Unlike OTP which focuses on podiums at championship events, Sport Canada considers top-8 finishes as well as other subjective factors.
In the previous season, Biathlon Canada had carding money for eight athletes. After the Olympics, Sport Canada recognized their strong performances and gave them an additional card. And this week, they confirmed that they would bring the total up to 11.
Because a governing body can also divide cards into smaller pools and give the amount of money from two full cards to three developing athletes as smaller amounts, Biathlon Canada will now be able to fully salary its “A” and “B” teams, which it has never done before. That’s a total of 13 athletes. Lindsay still estimated that his team lags behind cross country in carding money, while a sport like track and field might receive 80 or more full cards.
And finally, Lindsay hopes that biathlon might eventually be considered along with the other, medal-winning, sports for higher OTP funding. At the moment OTP has placed the sport on a 1-year “probational” funding scheme, since it doesn’t “fit” into any of the categories the organization has created depending on how many medals have been won in the last three Olympics.
“But OTP does recognize the potential that we have, and we will be working out with OTP a set of goals that we will try to achieve over the next season to continue proving that we have potential for medals in 2018,” Lindsay said. “I have absolutely no concerns that we will be able to meet whatever goals which are put up for us.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.