November 11, 2005

Responsibility and Control

Here's the lead paragraph from a recent article in the Toronto Sun:

A federal government pilot program that funnelled cash to targeted elite winter Olympians with medal potential at the 2002 Salt Lake City games created stress and led to underperformance, according to an evaluation of the program obtained by Sun Media shows [sic].

Now there's a statement guaranteed to cause some pain in the Canadian amateur sport community. We've been very publicly asking, no, begging the federal government for more money — just give us more money, we know what to do with it, we'll bring home more medals. And here's a government report that concludes that extra money cost medals in 2002?

Well, not exactly. Let's back up a bit.

Prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Canadian government and the COC created the Podium 2002 pilot program. Under the program, extra funding — beyond the basic allotment for National Sport Organizations (NSOs) — was provided for athletes that were ranked in the top 5 in the world in an Olympic event. According to the Sun article, that amounted to 93 athletes, but that seems high to me. I can't find an independent verification of that number.

The Sun quotes directly from the "secret" (I am not sure what that means) report to note that athletes were "very appreciative" of the funding and that "medals were won because of this program." That sounds like a good thing, assuming that winning more medals was one of the goals … which is probably a safe assumption since the program was called Podium 2002.

Here's where the stress/underperformance thing comes in, again quoting from the report:

But to the evaluator's surprise, several athletes indicated that they would have done better without funding, due to stress endured as a result of the podium problem and their lack of control over the money.

So it's a bit of a stretch — drawing a sensational conclusion from comments by "several athletes" — to say that the extra funding led to lost medals. Sport Canada, for their part, must have decided that the program was a success, because they've expanded it into the $55M Own the Podium initiative. On the other hand, the report does make an interesting criticism of the way that the pilot program was administered.

The "podium problem" mentioned above is the name for the alleged division that the initiative created between funded and non-funded athletes; a sort of "team chemistry" excuse, I guess. Since we're talking about individual sports here, I have to take that with a large grain of salt. The rest of the quote is interesting, though — athletes endured stress due to their lack of control over the money.

That shouldn't come as a big surprise. It's a well-known maxim of stress management that high responsibility with low control leads to stress. In this case, some of the targeted athletes obviously felt responsible for the extra funding, but they didn't have control over how it was spent.

The reason they didn't have control over the money is because it was delivered into the hands of the winter sport NSOs. One can see how this might cause problems, especially in situations where athletes and NSOs were already in conflict. You could, instead, give the extra funding directly to the athletes, to spend as they saw fit. That would increase the responsibility of the athletes, but it would also dramatically increase their control. The COC's Athlete Fund (part of the Excellence Fund) follows this model.

The Own The Podium program, however, still gives money to NSFs, not to athletes. However, as I understand it, the allocation is not directly attributed to specific athletes or teams; rather, the money is preferentially given to those NSFs with the best chances to win lots of medals. Of course, this assessment is based on the recent performances of specific athletes, but the funding is not a simple dollars-per-top-five-athlete allocation. In other words, Sport Canada has attempted to reduce the athletes' feeling of responsibility, rather than giving them more control.

The combination of these two programs might be just about right, though. World-class athletes earn extra support from the Excellence Fund, and it goes into their pockets directly; that's a lot of responsibility, but a corresponding high level of control. The NSFs that develop the largest number of high-performing athletes get extra money from Own the Podium: again, they bear all the responsibility, but they've got an appropriate level of control.

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