OTP Cuts Biathlon Canada’s Base Funding to Zero

Jason AlbertJuly 20, 2017
Biathlon Canada’s Scott Gow racing to 47th in the men’s 12.5 k pursuit at 2017 IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria. Biathlon Canada is facing a tightening of purse strings for the 2018 Olympic season as Own The Podium cut its base funding to zero. (Photo: Glen Crawford)

If you made it past the article’s title, then get ready to immerse yourself in the intricacies of Canadian high-performance sports funding.

OK, here it goes…money, money, money. Add this for effect, $.

Imagine for a moment you’re the CEO of a national sporting body and you’ve got high aspirations — things like championship and Olympic medals. There’s an infinite amount of puzzle pieces to organize and assemble. There are two critical pieces to even fathom success: the motivated athletes-coaches combo along with ample funding.

Biathlon Canada finds itself in a precarious position for the 2017/2018 season— a critical year considering that many athletes sharpied in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, in mid-February as their performance peak just after the 2014 Sochi Olympiad.

The financial hammer fell in May when Own The Podium (OTP), a Canadian nonprofit focused on supporting Olympic medal contenders, cut its base funding to Biathlon Canada to zero dollars. ((Biathlon Canada is the National Sporting Organization (NSO) overseeing biathlon in Canada.))

Andy Holmwood, Biathlon Canada’s general manager (Photo: Pam Doyle)

During the final run-up to PyeongChang, Biathlon Canada must belt-tighten and evolve in a climate of continued funding scarcity. At the time of publication, the exact amount of Biathlon Canada’s budget was unclear despite a request to Biathlon Canada General Manager Andy Holmwood to confirm his organization’s 2017/2018 budget.

“I am not in a position to discuss any of our budget numbers,” Holmwood said in a phone interview on July 11th.

Biathlon Canada receives the majority of its funding from three major sources. There’s Sport Canada, a government agency providing funds to NSO’s through its Sport Support Program. Jon Schofield, a Sport Canada spokesperson and media-relations specialist, explained to FasterSkier in an email that Sport Support Funding is for a four-year cycle.

Then there are corporate and private donations made directly to Biathlon Canada.

Lastly, there’s funding from Own The Podium (OTP). According to Schofield, OTP makes the recommendations upon which other groups base their monetary support.

“Those sports that have athletes which have demonstrated the potential to achieve a podium result at the Olympics and Paralympics, are also eligible for enhanced excellence support,” Schofield wrote in an email. “The assessment of podium potential is done yearly by Own the Podium which provides funding recommendations to Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee – (the two latter) which in turn support the sports directly.”

It can be tricky and frustrating. Biathlon Canada is in a constant struggle to promote and financially support athletes who have already arrived while keeping promising athletes in the development pipeline.

The OTP Ask

Here’s how the basics work between OTP and Biathlon Canada. The NSO, or Biathlon Canada in this case, presents its supporting evidence — in both a formal proposal and in-person meeting — that its athletes have Olympic medal potential. OTP officials then recommend funding based on their assessment of the submitted evidence.

OTP funding is considered to be “top-up” funding, or monies for athletes at the very highest level of their respective sport. Amongst the high-performance scene in Canada, the philosophy of emphasizing those athletes already at the top is referred to “targeted excellence”. In total, OTP redistributes approximately $64 million annually. To put that in perspective, that $64 million is part of the larger $200 million the government invest in Canadian sport annually.

Anne Merklinger, Own The Podium chief executive officer (Photo: OTP)

“Our mandate, which is prescribed by the national funding partners, is to provide technical advice for National Sport Organizations and to provide investment recommendations for those sports organizations that have evidence of medal potential for the upcoming set of Games,” Anne Merklinger, OTP chief executive officer, said in a phone interview. “Secondly, we also provide investment recommendations for the subsequent set of Games, so in winter that would be for 2022. So those investment recommendations are being considered by the minister and they are not final yet.”

According to Holmwood, Biathlon Canada presented a portfolio highlighting the medal potential of its men’s relay team.

“I think we made a strong case for our men’s relay team as a medal hopeful,” Holmwood said. “I think it’s fair to say they didn’t agree with us completely. They didn’t share that perception. It is clear that OTP in an Olympic year, they refer to sharpening their pencils and really focusing the funding on strong medal contenders. In their eyes, we did not fit in that.”

Two seasons ago, the men’s relay team earned a historic bronze medal at 2016 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships in Oslo, Norway. Last season, their best finish was seventh at the World Cup in PyeongChang, South Korea, where many nations did not start all of their top athletes. (More on last season’s results later.)

“Their base funding for ’17-’18 is zero,” Merklinger said about OTP’s funding for Biathlon Canada. “But they are receiving $50,000 for the coaching position … to support a coach through the Olympic Legacy Coaching Fund. So that is the extent of the funding recommendation for biathlon for the ’17-’18 fiscal year.”

Starting at the top of Canada’s biathlon pyramid, the collective gasp came at the depth of the cuts, not that OTP cuts were made.

“OTP takes a very actuarial approach,” Holmwood said. “It’s not subjective. And to their credit, they are very clear in their mandate. It’s not a big massive surprise. I think what surprised us was just how deep the cut went.”

Roddy Ward, Biathlon Canada high-performance director (Photo: Ric Rowan)

Roddy Ward, named Biathlon Canada’s high-performance director in June, reiterated Holmwood’s sentiments, but said the cuts could have an impact on future podium potential.

“In the end, it seems as though they believe we have some up-and-coming athletes but no medal prospect for 2018 Olympics,” Ward said. “By their mandate, it means we get cut out of the pot of money for the Olympic season. I don’t doubt they followed through with their mandate, but ultimately, decisions like that undermine growth towards consistent podiums in our sport.”

Ward has a point about diminished funding decreasing the odds of future podiums. But OTP’s mandate only looks to a two-Olympic cycle “event horizon”. At the moment, OTP is not obligated to look further than Beijing 2022.

OTP publishes what it calls a Winter Historical Comparison on it’s website. It outlines OTP funding recommendations for Olympic winter sports by quadrennial. For the Vancouver quadrennial, Biathlon Canada received $1,784,173. It received $1,324,623 for the Sochi quadrennial.

According to Merklinger, for the ’14-’15 fiscal year, Biathlon’s base funding from OTP was $250,000, $400,000 for ’15-’16 and $435,000 for the ’16-’17 fiscal year. Accounting for the ’17-’18 cuts, and adding the $50,000 from the coaching legacy fund, the PyeongChang quadrennial total for Biathlon amounts to $1,135,000.

(On OTP’s website, a figure of $1,200,000 is used for the first three years of the PyeongChang quadrennial. Using that figure, an amount of $1,250,000 would have been recommended for Biathlon during the PyeongChang quad.)

Although Merklinger was clear in explaining to FasterSkier that Biathlon Canada’s base funding was “zero”, Holmwood said this about OTP’s potential allocations: “Our OTP funding for this coming season is uncertain. It is fair to say, I would say that we have received a substantial cut, but just what we will be getting from OTP is not certain.”

OTP’s Merklinger said the funding door as it applies to the medal potential of Canada’s national biathlon team isn’t exactly slammed shut. OTP maintains the administrative flexibility to infuse money into a high-performance program on short term notice.

“We can do that from today until the start of the Olympic Games,” Merklinger said when asked if OTP could recognize medal potential with monetary support if an athlete or team proves they are on form in races scheduled a few months before the Games. “We are eager to work with biathlon as the season unfolds to assess the progress of their preparations and their performance for PyeongChang and would be delighted to be in a position where we could provide a very specific incremental funding recommendation that is focused and that responds to a positive side of the program and indicates that they indeed have evidence of medal potential.”

The Potential

Medal potential is exactly that — potential. There are no absolutes. Although actuarial means may be used to determine the likelihood for an Olympic medal, sport is fickle.

Take biathlon, for example. There’s the shooting range and wind conditions, the rifle and its complex moving parts, the wax, the skis, and of course the athlete. The number crunching for potential would have to consider the likelihood of all things aligning for a Canadian athlete and the likelihood a veritable podium lock, like France’s Martin Fourcade, has an unlikely off-day. No matter where the OTP assessment falls, OTP’s job is a tough one — determining the likelihood of an event before that event transpires and basing its funding decisions on that likelihood.

The Canadian men’s team (from left to right) Christian Gow, Nathan Smith, Scott Gow, and Brendan Green celebrating bronze in the men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay at 2016 World Championships in Oslo, Norway. (Photo: JoJo Baldus)

One wouldn’t need to be transported back far in time to underscore Biathlon Canada’s positive medal potential. For starters, the time machine’s date could be set to March 12, 2016. In the pressure cooker of Oslo’s Holmenkollen stadium, Canadian biathletes Christian Gow, Nathan Smith, Scott Gow, and Brendan Green claimed bronze in the World Championships relay.

At 2015 World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, Smith earned Canada’s first ever men’s biathlon World Championship hardware with a silver medal in the 10-kilometer sprint. Later that month, Smith backed up that exceptional day by winning the 12.5 k pursuit in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, for his first-career World Cup win.

The past season was a down year for Canadian biathlon. Smith, the team’s highest-profile male skier, was sidelined for much of the season while he battled a virus. Brendan Green, another veteran with multiple top 10’s to his name, scored a single top-30 World Cup result in 2016/2017. Meanwhile, Scott Gow raced to three top 30’s, earning 23rd, 18th, and 17th places on the World Cup. 

On the women’s side, Rosanna Crawford had been the team’s rising star, earning fourth-, fifth- and seventh-place finishes on the World Cup during the 2014/2015 season; she also placed 15th at 2016 Oslo World Champs in the 12.5 k mass start. Individually, Crawford scored six World Cup top 30’s this past season with a best result of 19th at the PyeongChang test event. She placed 26th in this year’s World Championship sprint. 

As has been written before about Biathlon Canada’s tenuous funding, OTP considers medal potential at World Championships and Olympics. It’s not obligated to consider stand alone results on the World Cup circuit when making those judgments. So performance on the big stage matters.

At World Championships in Hochfilzen, Julia Ransom placed 18th in the 15 k individual race, the best Canadian women’s finish for the event, and Christian Gow led the men’s team with 23rd in the pursuit.

The Impact

In recent years, it has been rumored that Biathlon Canada has run a deficit.

“Biathlon Canada has always kind of operated in the red,” Crawford said in a phone interview.

It’s possible that the prospect of programmatic cuts due to the NSO’s financial standing wasn’t unforeseen. According to a February 2015 article in The Crag and Canyon out of Canmore, Biathlon Canada will maintain the same annual expenditures through 2018. In that article, that reporter states that Biathlon Canada’s annual budget is $1.4 million. This number reflects the NSO’s total budget, not the portion set aside for funding the high-performance program.  

With a lack of substantial OTP support this year, Biathlon Canada is implementing a high-performance austerity program during the training season.

“We must move on and do our best to deliver on our results despite the massive cuts,” Ward said. “We have virtually cut everywhere; no funded camps, reduced IST (physiologist, strength coach, nutrition, sport psych etc), less staff, athletes will pay to compete on the World Cup. We are doing our very best to build a solid program for our National Team with limited resources, this means an ‘all hands on deck’ approach by staff. I can tell you staff are extremely motivated so in some way, it’s very exciting to be a part of and could be the perfect storm for us.”

Canada’s high-performance biathletes are accustomed to traveling for training camps. Athletes have experienced on-snow training camps in New Zealand, Park City, Utah camps, dryland racing and training in Jericho, Vermont, Haig glacier camps in the Canadian Rockies, as well as a Jasper, Canada camp. Other camps have included a Dachstein glacier camp and training in Norway. This dryland season will be more restrictive. According to Crawford, the women’s team traveled and trained in Kelowna, British Columbia, where costs were minimized: Ransom’s parents housed the team, and a sponsor donated funds for groceries.

Rosanna Crawford (Biathlon Canada) racing to 26th in the women’s 7.5 k sprint at 2017 IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria. (Photo: Glen Crawford)

Crawford also wrote in an email that both the men’s and women’s team will be spending two to three nights on the Haig glacier outside of Canmore later this summer, and Christian and Scott Gow will be attending a self-funded Park City camp.

“The majority of the cuts we have seen have been in those extensive trips, or out of country trips, maybe more precisely,” Holmwood said. “We were thinking of going to Jericho in August, but we removed that simply because the cost is pretty high. Our dollar is not strong right now, also. The U.S. is not typically a place we need to go to.”

New terrain, opportunities to thwart dryland-season staleness, and exposure to different athletes are value added aspects of training camps. Crawford, who is based in Canmore, home of Biathlon Canada and a world-class biathlon training facility, said the lack of camps are a setback, but not a season-killer.

“In some ways, it’s fuel for the fire, like, ‘We’re gonna show you’,” she said. “We don’t have to travel, we can do really good recovery, everyone can be with their significant others, and the coaches get to spend more time with their families so maybe they’ll be less likely to get burnt out in the winter. So I think we’re all just trying to find the positives from this scenario.”

With an important competition year looming, Crawford explained the real compromise may come if the funding limitations impact service on the international competition circuit.

“Truly I don’t think this summer is going to be the hard part. I have complete faith in our coaches and Jess Kryski, who’s our physiologist, that they know exactly what to do with us to get us nice and strong,” she said. “It’s more the concerns around the wintertime of how many wax techs we’re going to have, whether we’ll have massage therapists, whether athletes will have to pay to go and race. I think those are some of my bigger concerns.”

Holmwood stated that when snow flies and athletes toe the line internationally, the financial gut-shot will not impact athlete support.

“The key theme is that we are tightening our belts primarily with regard to camps,” Holmwood continued. “But come World Cup season, IBU Cup season, we will be supporting teams to the extent that we have in the past, and we will give them the resources they need to succeed.”

The Financial Seesaw and Its Cost: Reforms Coming

In 2010, Biathlon Canada’s charitable status was called into question and ultimately rescinded by the Canada Revenue Agency. Prior to the ruling, Biathlon Canada could issue tax receipts for donations. That’s no longer the case. As a result, corporate and individual donors must be compelled to contribute funds based on Biathlon Canada’s marketing exposure or simply the gift of giving.

Without the possibility of issuing tax receipts as a nonprofit, Biathlon Canada finds itself with hands wide open without a tax deduction incentive to attract corporate sponsors.

It appears Biathlon Canada has come to rely on OTP funding for its elite level athletes, despite the fact that in the Canadian sports system this funding is supposed to be a “top-up”.

“OTP makes up the bulk of the funding for the National Team and our winter competitive tours so it hit our National Team budget hard,” Ward said.

Exposed with OTP’s lack of funding is the cost of relying on a single source to meet the financial demands of running a NSO of a niche sport. The money is hard to come by. 

Yet high-performance athletes in Canada have direct support from Sport Canada through what is called the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP). The requirements for athlete support through Sport Canada are different than OTP’s medal-driven approach.

“Support is provided yearly to those athletes whose sport has identified them either being or having the potential for a top 16 result in the world,” wrote Schofield, of Sport Canada. “Each sport has a number of stipends that they have access to, based on previous results and future potential.” 

AAP qualifying athletes are considered “carded” athletes. Carded athletes receive a monthly check from the government to help offset living expenses while they train with the end goal of representing Canada at the Olympics or international competitions. Since 2004, $1,500 was the maximum monthly stipend an athlete could receive. As of this March, the federal funding for the AAP was increased 18 percent — eligible athletes can now receive up to $1,770 per month.

Here’s the verbiage straight from the AAP website: “AAP support seeks to relieve some of the financial pressures associated with preparing for and participating in international sport and assists high-performance Canadian athletes to combine their sport and academic or working careers while training intensively in pursuit of world-class performances.”

It remains to be seen if carded biathletes must use their monthly check for training necessities and sport recovery rather than rent or mortgage and food.

“We’ll still get the same,” Crawford said when asked if the OTP cut would impact the team’s carded athletes. “Each individual athlete will still get the same amount of money they’ve been getting in the past years from the government. Of course, it’s great for us to have funding, but it would be better if Biathlon Canada could also have a big funding partner so that we could do training camps and stuff like that, and the money we that we get could go toward groceries and the high cost of living in Canmore.”

As with the government’s intent to increase the maximum allotment to its carded athletes to compensate for a long overdue adjustment for inflation, reform minded stakeholders in government and the NSO’s should see changes to how the OTP “targeted excellence” philosophy is implemented.

Almost exactly a month ago, a report titled “Review of Sport Canada’s Targeted Excellence Approach,” was released on June 22. Essentially, the 72-page report highlights the underlying success of OTP — it has helped produce more Canadian Olympic medals —  but also reports on findings that call for systemic change.

One of the main concerns raised in the report was that OTP funding decisions are made annually. The negative consequence for NSO’s and athletes is that a climate of instability persists in some sports when funding remains questionable from year to year. When cuts occur, it can leave less financially nimble NSO’s too little time to pick up the funding slack. And potential corporate sponsors shy away from longer-term sports sponsorships when defunding or deep cuts from OTP remain an ongoing possibility.

The report does suggest a model premised on funding obligations longer than a single year.

And for those in nordic sport concerned about the development pipeline, the report makes requests for a greater emphasis on longer-term funding. A common critique of OTP, as featured in a Nordic Nation podcast, is that investments in what in Canada is referred to as the “NextGen”, or up and coming athletes, are lacking. 

Here’s a major concern: The medal bounty OTP has helped Canada haul in since the 2010 Vancouver Games could be a well that’s drying up. Without investing in developing its younger athletes, medal famine may be the new norm.

The Government of Canada mentioned in its April 2015 budget that increased monies for athlete development — the so called “NextGen” —  would be forthcoming. The report released on June 22 recommends the following strategy when it comes to emerging athletes and allocating funds: “The current targeted approach should not be used with younger athletes deep in the ‘pipeline’. Instead, an approach that favoured focusing on training groups and larger numbers was recommended.”

For now, the brutal funding cycle continues for Canada’s biathletes and high-performance support team as feast and famine remain the backdrop to a strict definition of high-performance success: medals. The return on investment in the near term for all the stakeholders might be a zero-sum game, and in that case, who wins?

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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