November 28, 2005

The Professionalization of Nationality

During the Athens Olympics, a bit of a flame war erupted between some South African swimmers and their national federation. After their world-record performance in the 4 × 100 m relay, swimmers Ryk Neethling and Roland Schoeman were critical of Swimming SA for their lack of financial support; federation president Gideon Sam retorted that "if they want to swim for Uganda, then they must go."


It wasn't Uganda, but Qatar that came calling, with an offer of more than a million Canadian dollars per year for three years. Neethling has reportedly declined. It appears that Schoeman is trying to use the Qatari offer as leverage with Swimming SA, who don't have that kind of money but are hoping that a sponsor with deep pockets will make their star athlete a counter-offer that he can't refuse.

If you're waiting for Schoeman to "do the right thing," I'd suggest that you don't hold your breath. After Swimming SA came up with a reward of about $20,000 Canadian (112,500 rand) for his Olympic performance in September 2004, Schoeman barely paused to give thanks before he lashed out at the National Olympic Committee of South Africa:

We are still waiting for NOCSA to come up with their incentives. In Sydney 2000 the incentives for a gold medal was a million rand, a silver 500,000 rand and a bronze 250,000 rand, but we are still waiting to hear from [NOC president] Sam Ramsamy. I wanted to buy a house, but that's not going to happen. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Poor Roland. I hope he finds a nice place in Qatar. Maybe he can also negotiate a marriage of convenience to a pathetically desperate ABBA fan with a wedding obsession and a heart of gold.

OK, enough athlete bashing. This is not the first time that something like this has happened, and it won't be the last. And what's so wrong with changing citizenship, anyway? Maybe my feeling of disgust for Roland Schoeman is misguided. Let's get on to the facts, and hopefully some discussion.

The Facts

The Olympic Charter states (Rule 42 and Bye-law thereof):

Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the [National Olympic Committee] which is entering such competitor. … A competitor who has represented one country in the Olympic Games, in continental or regional games or in world or regional championships recognised by the relevant IF, and who has changed his nationality or acquired a new nationality, may participate in the Olympic Games to represent his new country provided that at least three years have passed since the competitor last represented his former country.

The IOC, obviously, has no control over the process of changing citizenship; if Qatar wants to fast-track the process for world-class athletes, that's the business of the Qatari government. But the three-year waiting period won't begin at the date of citizenship; it will begin on the date of Schoeman's last "world or regional championships" appearance. In that sense, then, the citizenship process itself is irrelevant. If Schoeman switches countries, the waiting period will begin at the 2005 World Championships, which were held in July. The Beijing Olympics will be held from August 8 to August 24, 2008, so he would still be eligible to compete for a "new" country at the next Olympics.

Outside of the Olympic games, sport international federations (IFs) are free to set their own rules. Some IFs require full citizenship, and some do not. In the case of swimming, FINA's general rules state:

When a competitor represents his/her country in a competition, he/she shall be a citizen, whether by birth or naturalisation, of the nation he/she represents, provided that a naturalised citizen shall have lived in that country for at least one year prior to that competition. … Any competitor changing his affiliation from one national governing body to another must have resided in the territory of and been under the jurisdiction of the latter for at least twelve months prior to his first representation for the country. Any application for change of affiliation must be approved by FINA.

So here FINA is imposing a one-year wait, and would also require Schoeman to take up residence in Qatar during the waiting period. If he became a citizen of Qatar tomorrow, he couldn't compete in any FINA-sponsored events — including the world short-course championships in April — for a year.

The Discussion

If Schoeman switches nationality, then presumably he will be under contract with the Qatari NOC, for a three-year term. He will be receiving compensation for his citizenship, and in return he will be competing exclusively for Qatar. In other words, he will be tied to the Qatari NOC the same way that a professional football player is tied to his club.

There is at least one major difference, of course. Although Schoeman could be bought, with his consent, I have to presume that his contract could not be legally sold to a third party. If his performance in 2007 is not up to his usual standards, could the Qataris trade his services to, say, the United Arab Emirates for a beach volleyball team and a hurdler to be named later? The IOC's eligibility rules might appear to inhibit athlete "trades" except in the first year of the quadrennial cycle; however, another IOC By-Law states that the IOC can reduce or eliminate the three-year wait if the NOCs and the IF are in agreement. So the waiting period may not really be a serious impediment to trades.

But even leaving trades aside, this amounts to a very free market, where NOCs compete for a scarce resource (world class athletes), and the athletes are free agents that can sell their services to any bidder they choose. There are various outside factors that influence the market, of course. For example, there are many non-sport factors that will influence the choice of nationality, including standards of living and culture. Athletes would weigh these "intangibles" against the money being offered when choosing their NOC.

It is important to point out that what I am envisioning above is not prevented by any of the current rules of the Olympics. That is, all of the world's NOCs could immediately start buying athletes on the free market, and nobody could stop it! So why doesn't it happen more often? I think that there are a number of factors at play here. First of all, elite sport is usually supported directly or indirectly by government funding; governments continue this arrangement only as long as there is some (real or imagined) benefit to their "own" citizens. Most western governments, certainly, would be reluctant to support open buying of "foreign" athletes. Furthermore, many governments would find it politically difficult to grant insta-citizen status to elite athletes when "real" immigrants face a long and arduous application process. And most amateur athletes have strong feelings of loyalty to their country, which provides a fairly high psychological barrier to changing nationality. I suspect that this is why Schoeman is waiting for South Africa's offer before making his move.

For my own part, I find myself feeling very annoyed at Roland Schoeman and the Qatari NOC. On an emotional level, I feel that allowing national Olympic committees to buy athletes is a bad thing. However, I struggle with some aspects of the argument. In particular, some people will argue that the nation-against-nation organization of the Olympics is at best useless, and at worst a deliberate conspiracy by the IOC to promote nationalist sentiment for its own profit. I feel that there is something good and useful about competing for your country, but doubtless the detractors will say that I have been too long indoctrinated in the system. I'd like to hear some discussion on this (which is what that "Comments" link is for).

As further food for thought, here are some other examples of nation-switching in recent history.

  • During the apartheid era, South Africa was not recognized by the IOC and South African nationals therefore could not compete at the Olympics. Zola Budd became a British citizen and competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
  • A Kenyan long-distance runner might rank in the top 10 in the world and be unable to make the Kenyan team. Some Kenyans get around this problem by claiming Ugandan citizenship.
  • Several top Kenyan athletes have been purchased by Qatar already. In this case, the financial gain can be the difference between poverty and security for the athlete. For example, Stephen Cherono became a Qatari citizen (and changed his name to Saif Saeed Shaheen) for a lifetime monthly stipend of $1000.
  • Russian pole vaulters Tatiana Grigorieva and her husband competed for Australia in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It is possible that there were direct payment incentives offered, although I have not found any confirmation of that theory. In Australia, however, Grigorieva became a minor celebrity and parlayed her silver medal and good looks into a lucrative career as a "model."
  • Yet another Kenyan runner, Bernard Lagat, became a US citizen in 2005 (or was it 2004?). Lagat has been living in the US for almost ten years.
  • US Olympic champion Sarah Hughes has hinted that she may consider skating for Canada in 2010. Her motivation for such a move is unclear, but she holds dual citizenship.

November 24, 2005

More On …

I won't be doing much blogging this weekend. I'll be doing some of that sports volunteering I talk about sometimes. So here's a little dump from my "draft post" pile that should provide some interesting reading, and tie up some loose ends that I've left dangling. I'll warn you up front that most of these stories have to do with doping, but I think that there are a few fresh perspectives on that well-worn topic.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport conducted 1081 drug tests in July, August, and September. About half were exclusively Canadian athletes. Of the 1081 tests, two resulted in doping violations: one for EPO and one for refusing to provide a sample. That's a catch rate of 0.19%, if you're scoring at home (follow up to On Doping Rates and Sample Size.)

The International Herald Tribune reports on what Bode Miller really thinks about doping in sport (follow-up to Getting the Drugs Out of My System):

In an Olympic season that should introduce Miller, the best all-around Alpine skier in the world, to a much broader audience, he has decided to start it all off by becoming the only prominent winter Olympian to be bold or benighted enough to argue for a more laissez-faire approach to doping.

The USOC now has its own official supplier of nutritional supplements (follow-up to Doping and the "Culture of Pills and Powders"). I originally spotted this in the New York Times, but the article seems to have gone away. Here's a quote I grabbed from the NYT piece:

The U.S.O.C. recently reached the agreement with Ajinomoto, a Japanese food company [Amateur: the world's leading manufacturer of Aspartame], to market an amino-acid replacement product called Amino Vital. It is a cautious step into the minefield of the supplement business, one largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the cause of untold numbers of failed drug tests.

Some former East German athletes are now suing the German Olympic Committee for damages related to the GDR's state-run doping program; here's the story from CBS News and The Scotsman (follow-up to Damages). On a related note, here's an in-depth article about the quest to erase East German accomplishments from the German record books (follow-up to Getting the Drugs Out of My System).

The Boston Globe has a story on the recent breakthrough in steroid detection (follow-up to Getting the Drugs Out of My System):

Authorities have long based their efforts to find evidence of doping through chemistry, with labs searching an athlete's blood or urine for chemical compounds known to enhance performance. But designer steroids such as THG -- the substance at the center of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative doping scandal -- are crafted to be invisible because authorities don't know to look for its particular chemical markers.

Speaking of beating the tests, Dick Pound is still insisting that there is no problem with the urinary EPO Test (follow-up to More on Urinary EPO Test). Then again, what else can he say?

"Of course WADA can't back down," said one European sport official, who requested anonymity. "How can they back down on a test they've used to ban people for years? If they come out and say, 'Our test has got flaws,' how many millions are people going to sue for?"

Leaving the topic of doping now, Italy is offering huge cash rewards to athletes who win medals at the upcoming 2006 Olympics — $180,000 for a gold medal. You already know that I think that this is money poorly spent (follow-up to Amateur Athlete Funding Q&A).

And finally, some Scots' dreams of an independent Olympic team died in parliament some time ago (follow-up to Not-So-United Kingdom). Since then, the Scottish governing body for soccer has decided that their organization will not have anything to do with fielding a GBR soccer team in 2012, and Scottish players will not be eligible. I'll be curious to see if any legal action results.

November 22, 2005

Tough Love, and Not So Tough

Stories pop up with some regularity about the shocking powers of world-class athletes who (gasp!) like to eat junk food, or (horror!) aren't all that keen on training, or some such nonsense. A couple of weeks ago I found a hilarious example: Randy Starkman has a piece in the Toronto Star about US speedskating star Chad Hedrick, subtitled American known to show up for practice drunk. I got quite a few chuckles from Starkman's over-the-top descriptions:

Hedrick is an incredible story, even beyond his remarkable capacity to train when most would be incapacitated
and coach Bart Schouten's quotes:
You've got to give him five minutes to find his balance, but then he's okay … He does come drunk at practice every now and then, but he still does his practice harder than anybody else … One time he showed up late this year because he'd been drinking and I told him, 'If you go drink, you get here on time.'

Isn't it refreshing to see a coach whos got his priorities straight? I don't mind if you're drunk, but dammit, I won't stand for tardiness!

Octavian Belu, coach of the Romanian women's gymnastics team, is not quite as open-minded as Schouten. After an incident in which three national team athletes went to a nightclub and stayed out until four in the morning, Belu summarily dissolved the team. He also requested that his contract be terminated, stating that there wasn’t any justification for the money he was earning as the coach of the Olympic team. Two of the nightclubbers are representing Romania at the world championships as I write this, but Belu is apparently promising that he'll make a new national team in 2006, "when the members of the junior team will be old enough." He probably has the team already selected!

I doubt that many NCAA coaches would disband their teams (or offer to surrender their salaries) due to excessive athlete partying, and most don't have quite as much dictatorial power as Mr. Belu. It's clear, on the other hand, that some of them have very little tolerance for insubordination. Over on her highly entertaining blog, Flash tells the story of how her devotion to the Oakland Raiders cost her a 21-mile run at 0500 on an Indiana winter morning. (No word on whether Flash ever showed up to practice drunk, or what the resulting punishment was.)

November 20, 2005

World's Greatest

I once had a Hungarian coach who had a, shall we say, colourful way of speaking. He was particularly adept — a real virtuoso, actually — at making you feel like garbage when you failed. I remember one afternoon, after eating wash from a bunch of Swiss guys all over Newport Harbour, we retired to watch video of the workout. We saw a few minutes of our lousy technique, and then we were treated to extended footage of some of the local waterfowl. Coach K—'s assessment: "Guys, this was like Shakespeare. Romeo and Juilet, Othello … one of the great tragedies. I was almost crying."

The flip side of that coaching style is that if you ever do hear praise, it probably means that you've just done something really great. In my case, the closest I ever came to Coach K—'s admiration would have been an assurance that "What you did, it was more than nothing."

Last week, world champion pole vaulter (and many-time world record holder) Yelena Isinbayeva ditched her coach, Yevgeny Trofimov. The reason for the change is not apparent; an anonymous source "close to the Russian athletics federation" says that it was because Trofimov was demanding more of Isinbayeva's winnings, but I'd take that with a grain of salt given the source. The Russian federations are not known for their openness or their athlete-centered approach.

I laughed out loud when I read the last paragraph of the article, where Trofimov admits that he feels bitter about the breakup and then offers his blunt assessment of her prodigious talent, or maybe his own:

… I'm sure she'll continue to break records at least for the next few years. I've made all the work and put in so much into her that even if she is coached by a locksmith or a plumber she would still vault higher than anyone else in the world.

November 18, 2005

Athletes Nervous About More Cuts

Since this summer's Olympic programme debacle, Jacques Rogge has been trying to make it easier to add sports to the summer Olympics. On October 26, the IOC Executive Board met with the IOC Athletes' Commission:

… the Athletes' Commission, chaired by Sergey Bubka, made some recommendations on the way to move forward with the systematic review of the Olympic programme. Proposals were made to allow new sports to be included in the programme upon a simple majority of the IOC Session votes cast - instead of the two-thirds majority currently required, and to increase the minimum number of sports from 15 to 25.

Clearly, the athletes are worried about "shrinkage" of the Olympic games, and it's easy to see why they've made these proposals; under the process followed this summer, removal of a sport required a simple majority, whereas addition of a sport required two-thirds approval. That definitely looks like a recipe for contraction.

To a certain extent, though, the IOC's hands are tied on this issue, and the solution won't be simple. There aren't many details in the news release above, so I can't tell exactly what the Athletes' Commission proposed; I'll assume that the members are familiar with the Olympic Charter, which states that:

  • The IOC establishes the programme of the Olympic Games, which only includes Olympic Sports (Rule 47)
  • The sports governed by the following IFs are considered as Olympic sports [followed by list of 28 summer sport IFs and 7 winter sport IFs] (Rule 46)
  • The admission or exclusion of a sport falls within the competence of the IOC Session. (Rule 47, paragraph 7)
  • Decisions of the Session are taken by a majority of the votes cast; however, a majority of two-thirds of the IOC members attending the Session is required for any modification of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism or the Rules of the Olympic Charter. (Rule 18, paragraph 3)

So according to the rules, there are 28 sports that can be put on the summer Olympic programme without modifying the Olympic Charter — and therefore with a simple majority vote of the IOC members. Of those 28, 26 are already on the 2012 programme. The other two, of course, are softball and baseball. I don't think Rogge is really interested in putting softball and baseball back onto the programme. Nevertheless, anybody else that wants in will need a two-thirds majority, either to modify Rule 47 (which is very unlikely) or to modify Rule 46.

As it stands, things are a little bit unfair, in my opinion. Although I would personally favour baseball and softball over any of the proposed alternatives, the rules of the Charter give them an immense advantage over every other sport that isn't in the Olympics. That advantage is based purely on the fact that they have been in the Olympics before; but on that basis, rugby and golf (and tug-of-war and polo, for that matter) should also be on the list of "Olympic Sports."

One way around this problem would be to remove softball and baseball from Rule 46, giving them the same status as the other non-Olympic sports. Of course, that change to Rule 46 would itself require a two-thirds vote, and since both sports received support from at least 50 delegates at the last IOC Session, I suspect that's not going to happen. It's also not something that Rogge is likely to propose, since he wants to make it easier to add sports to the Olympics, not harder.

The only other solution is to have a number of sports added to the list in Rule 46; say, for starters, Golf, Rugby, Squash, Roller Sports, and Karate. Unfortunately, this is pretty similar to the proposal that the IOC delegates soundly rejected in July, and there's Rogge's dilemma. His best bet is to approach this as a two-step process. First, propose to have all five sports (or some other subset of the recognized group) added to the list of "Olympic sports" in Rule 46. To have any chance of success, Rogge will have to make it clear that the new sports aren't being added to the Olympic programme, and emphasize that they are really only being given the same status as baseball and softball.

Once that's accomplished, Rule 46 will include a list of 33 summer Olympic sports, from which the IOC members can choose up to 28 for each Olympics — by simple majority vote. But as long as I'm handing out free advice to the IOC, I've got a few ideas about how that choice should be made, too.

The process that was followed at this summer's session was deeply flawed, as I wrote when I first heard the details. Putting every sport to an up-or-down vote by the general membership makes the entire decision political — and puts sports at the mercy of some very ill-informed voters. The objective should be to maintain the strength and attractiveness of the sports programme above all else. Think about it this way: when it comes time to choose the host city, do you think that the IOC delegates usually pick the city that will provide the best sporting event, or the city that plays the politics best? Truly, I don't care that much about the host city election; the free vote is more unpredictable and therefore more exciting, and the host city is really just a side show, anyway. The sports programme, however, is the main event, and it should be treated with more care and attention.

The IOC has a detailed set of criteria for evaluating sports on an objective basis; I might quibble with the details, but at least somebody has given it some careful thought. The IOC also has an Olympic Programme Commission, "responsible for reviewing and analysing the programme of sports, disciplines and events … for the Games of the Olympiad and the Olympic Winter Games." Since Jacques Rogge has this ready-made panel of experts at his disposal, why doesn't he ask them to make a recommendation? The Commission's major report this spring was explicitly restricted from doing any such thing. Does that make any sense?

If you ask me (and surprisingly, nobody has, although I've been waiting since April), the IOC Olympic Programme Commission should make a specific recommendation on the composition of the programme, to be presented and either accepted or rejected (by simple majority) at an IOC Session. They should present their reasons for the recommendation — another thing that's missing in the current system — which must be based on the evaluation criteria. That doesn't prevent other suggestions from being brought forward from the floor, although they would have to follow the standard process; but it would allow a small group of experts to make a reasoned argument for their choice, which is a step up from what happened this summer.

When it comes right down to it, though, I don't like Rogge's chances of getting any new sports added to the programme in the near future. The last time the members considered it, they emphatically rejected the idea that karate and squash were worthy Olympic sports. Neither sport garnered anything close to a simple majority, and I don't see that much has changed since then.

November 16, 2005

Abandon Hope

As I mentioned once before, host nations at the Olympics get a special athletic perk: their teams don't have to qualify. That means that GBR can send a full Olympic squad in 2012 — that's about 700 athletes — if they choose to.

Will they choose to? Earlier this week UK Sport, the agency that distributes national lottery money to high-performance sport, proposed that they should. The government now has to approve that proposal, since it's going to cost about a quarter of a billion pounds.

Now, you may be wondering how it could possibly cost £250m to send 700 British athletes to London; that's more than half a million pounds per additional competitor, when you consider that there were 271 British athletes in Athens in 2004.

Well, it turns out that we're not just talking about a train ticket and a uniform. The British Olympic Association aren't interested in sending the best British athletes in every sport to the Olympics — even if it is a "home Games" — unless the best British athletes get a lot better. The £250m in new funding will be invested in bringing the UK's weakest sports up to a competitive international level.

The important thing is to discount the Eddie the Eagle scenario. We are absolutely not looking to send a team of 700 just because we have the right to send a team of 700. — Lord Moynihan, chairman of the BOA

That's not quite good enough for some people, though. The story ran in the Telegraph under the headline, "£250m bid to fund Olympic no-hopers promised a place in 2012 team." The article has a pretty narrow definition of a "no-hoper," being an athlete or team with little chance of winning an Olympic medal:

… Britain would compete in all 26 Olympic sports. … However, UK Sport has conceded that in certain sports - such as handball, volleyball and basketball - Britain lags so far behind the rest of the world that it would be a miracle if the country were in a position to challenge for a medal in seven years.

(As an aside, that assessment may be a bit of a blow to 14-year-old Amber Charles, but never mind.)

By that definition, then, the "no-hoper" label would encompass the majority of Olympic athletes (including myself, I suppose). Conservative MP Andrew Rossindell chimes in, too, saying, "It does not sound wise to break with precedent and enter people in parts of the Olympics we don't usually participate in when there's no chance of success."

Now, I've spoken out in favour of tough qualifying standards before, but setting the bar at top 3 seems a bit excessive even to me. On the other hand, I'm not sure that trying to float all boats, as it were, is the wisest plan, either. Very few countries have the resources to support high performance in all Olympic sports, and by attempting to raise everybody up to an "acceptable" level, the BOA and UK Sport might just end up with mediocrity across the board.

Without the new funding, of course, the BOA might decide to send a full team anyway — that is to say, Moynihan and the BOA might just be bluffing here, using the home Games as a wedge to get increased funding for high-performance sport. If they don't get it, it will be interesting to see if they stick to their high standards, or if they'll send several hundred athletes to London just to participate.

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.

November 09, 2005

Peak Performance?

A report from two British scientists claims that today's athletes are running at or near the limits of human performance:

For the first time we have identified that there could be a limit to performance and that world records will not continue to rise.

This quote, and the BBC News article, insinuate that "previous scientific research [showed] that there was no limit to human performance." What does that mean, exactly? That someday, if we just wait long enough, human beings will break the sound barrier? I gather from the study abstract that the authors have suggested an improvement to the "linear-improvement-with-time" model of human performance. That's nice and all, but surely it's obvious that a linear improvement can't continue forever. Did any scientist ever seriously suggest that there is no limit to the speed that a human can run?

The real conclusion of the study — that that limit is being reached right now — is interesting enough on its own. You don't need to make it sound like previous scientists in this field were idiots.

(Thanks to Statue John for pointing to the BBC News article at The Ultimate Olympian.)

POSTSCRIPT has a better description of the method and the results. Interesting stuff!

November 05, 2005

Not-So-Free Competition in China

Here's a story about the recently-completed China National Games that you probably won't read in the People's Daily; David Eimer at the Independent reported that

China has scored a sporting own goal, as its first rehearsal for Beijing's Olympic Games in 2008 descended into a farce of alleged match-rigging, bribery, unfair judging and doping scandals.

The full story, now available by subscription only (cost: 1 pound), tells the story of a judo match where the favourite, after receiving an apparent hand signal from her coach, immediately fell to the floor and lost the match.

Following predictable howls of protest from the spectators, CSGAS officials ordered a re-match, which Sun lost as well. However, her coach, Liu Yongfu, escaped with a warning despite admitting that the result had been determined beforehand. The same thing happened in the men's 80kg judo event, with the [Peoples Liberation Army] athlete winning while his opponent 'forfeited due to injury'.

Teams for the national games were organized by province, with the army represented by its own team. Most of the misconduct reported by Eimer is designed to tip the scales in favour of the PLA team.

And it didn't end at the judo venue:
Mass forfeits rendered the taekwondo and boxing competitions meaningless, while gymnasts complained that their results had been fixed before their events started. Three wrestling judges were banned for life after taking bribes, and some athletes did not attend medal ceremonies in protest at what they thought were more dubious judging decisions.

November 02, 2005

Amateur Athlete Funding Q&A

Canadian Olympic champion Lori-Ann Muenzer has decided to take a year off from cycling competition.

Muenzer was the 2004 gold medalist in the match sprint, an accomplishment made more astonishing by the fact that she was 38 years old. All of the articles covering Muenzer's recent announcement attributed the decision to "funding issues," indicating that she just doesn't have enough money to cover the required competition schedule this year. She plans to continue training at home in Edmonton, and to make a decision on her future in twelve months.

Are you shocked? Did you think that an Olympic gold medal was a ticket to fame and fortune? Well then here, for your enlightenment, your athlete funding questions will be answered.

Q. Don't the federal government and the Canadian Olympic Committee give gold medalists a lot of financial support?

As an Olympic athlete you make $16,000 gross per year. I have no RSPs. I have no portfolio. I'm 39 years old and it is really time I started thinking about it. — Lori-Ann Muenzer

Every national team athlete in Canada receives a monthly living and training allowance from Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program. The current stipend is $1500 a month (more than three times what I ever got — not that I'm bitter), which amounts to $18,000 a year. Unless something has changed in the last eight years, that money is not subject to federal or provincial income tax. For an athlete of Muenzer's calibre, the COC's Excellence Fund probably kicks in a couple thousand more each year; less in the year after the Olympics, more in the year of the Olympics, but in that ballpark. I would guess that Muenzer is picking up about $20K annually, after taxes, from the government and the COC.

Q. Sure, but Muenzer is an Olympic champion. She gets more than everybody else, doesn't she?

No. Olympic champion Lori-Ann Muenzer doesn't get any more AAP money than any other national team athlete in Canada, and that includes a significant number of athletes who will never reach the Olympics. The AAP used to be graduated (A,B,C) based on international rankings, but Sport Canada did away with that system a few years ago.

Q. Is $20,000 enough money, or not?

In the quote above, Muenzer is trying to explain how difficult it is to live the life of an adult in Canada on $20K, never mind supporting your career as an elite athlete. Muenzer has a job (a "real" job, as we used to say), which helps her keep her head above water. Since her Olympic win she's also initiated a couple of projects, trying to turn her Olympic gold medal into a source of income. Note that she's not standing around shouting that she "deserves" more money; she's working hard to take care of her own future. Unfortunately, all that effort takes away from her ability to be a full-time athlete.

If Canada wants to produce and keep top-flight international athletes, then the government needs to provide a decent living allowance. That a Canadian cyclist won an Olympic gold medal while working another job is … well, it's something that just doesn't happen in the twenty-first century. If Canada wants to win Olympic medals like Australia does, then being an elite athlete should be a career, not a part-time job. I'm not talking about money as motivation — more on that topic later — I'm talking about money that allows an athlete to concentrate fully on their athletic performance.

Here's a useful point of reference: to bring in a yearly income of $18,000, you would have to have a full-time job that paid about $8.70 an hour. As I noted, the AAP is not subject to income tax or other deductions, so let's call it equivalent to $12 an hour. In 2003, about thirty percent of Canadian employees made less than $12 per hour of work. The median wage was $16 an hour. So sure, our elite athletes have enough to buy groceries, but no, they aren't getting a lot of money.

On the other hand, here's another point of reference: in 1996, an A-carded athlete (ranked top 4 in the world) made $7800 a year. So Sport Canada has already taken strong action on this issue.

Q. But Olympic athletes win big cash prizes for medals, don't they?

In Australia and several other countries now, they pay the podium. The going rate is $50,000 for an Olympic gold medal. I asked Muenzer what percentage of something like that she may have received. She held up her hand and made a circle - the universal sign for zero. — Terry Jones

There are no financial prizes awarded at the Olympics by the IOC. As far as I know, none of the International sport Federations give out prizes for medals won or records broken at the Olympics, either.

Neither the Canadian federal government nor the COC pays prize money to Canadian Olympic medalists, although this is standard practice in many other countries. As far as I am aware, none of Canada's NSOs or provincial sport organizations pay medal bonuses, either.

Q. So should Canada award prizes for Olympic medals?

Many people argue in favour of cash rewards. The quote above comes from Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun, who wrote an article about the Muenzer situation that ran under the headline She's a Hero With Zero. Jones is essentially making the case that we (as a nation) owe these athletes a big prize, as a reward for all the hardship they went through on our behalf:

… once again a Canadian is having to settle for the journey and the moment as the payoff. After all those years of eating Kraft dinners, they don't give you steak. They give you all sorts of honours. But you can't eat fame and glory.

Putting the hyperbolic starvation metaphor aside, maybe we do owe Lori-Ann Muenzer something; I don't know. That sounds like a philosophical argument to me, and I'm not going to touch it. A more interesting question to me is: does it pay? Assuming that the goal is to win more Olympic medals, would offering financial prizes improve Canada's performance?

Q. OK, then. Would offering financial prizes for medals improve Canada's performance at the Olympics?

I don't see it. I guess there are two parts to the theory behind this practice. First, Canada's elite athletes are lacking motivation; and second, the chance to win a pile of money would provide that missing motivation. I don't even buy the first part. In my experience, Canadian athletes do not lack drive, or the desire to win; they're doing it for "the journey and the moment," and they're doing it as well as they can. If you don't believe me, try asking one of them if they could possibly be working harder towards their goals.

Again, this is not to say that Canadian athletes couldn't use more money; in many cases their training and preparation are hindered by a lack of funding. But providing prize money doesn't solve those problems until it's too late. Athletes need more support when they're preparing for the Olympics. That's a much more effective way to improve performance, in my opinion.

Q. What about government money that's given to NSOs?

[Steve Lacell, Chief Operating Officer of the Canadian Cycling Association] was disappointed by Muenzer's decision. The association has been lobbying Sport Canada and the [sic] corporate Canada for extra funding for elite athletes. He said there is some hope there will be increased funding in the spring federal budget … Lacelle said he hopes Muenzer will reconsider. "It is a blow. She is a gold medallist," he said from Ottawa. "We are working at getting additional funding so we can prevent these situations from happening."

In addition to government money that goes directly into her pocket, Muenzer benefits from public funds through her national sport organization (NSO). I don't have any inside knowledge about the workings of the Canadian Cycling Association; some of what I'm about to say will assume that the CCA is well-run, and is doing its best to produce world-class Canadian cyclists. I may be wrong on both counts, but I have not seen Muenzer being critical of the CCA, so far.

Funding for NSOs is allocated in different categories. The part that we are interested in here is the high-performance budget. Based on my experience as a volunteer at another Canadian NSO, I suspect that the CCA spends most of its high performance budget on coaching, equipment, and travel. These are exactly the expenses that Muenzer is claiming she can't meet herself, so why can't the CCA help her out?

Let's look at the numbers. The CCA is one of the "have" NSOs in Canada. Cycling was allocated $435,000 for its high-performance program in 2005, seventh most among all NSOs. The CCA is responsible for all three Olympic cycling disciplines (road, track, and mountain bike). Altogether there are 38 carded athletes (national team supported through AAP) in cycling, which gives you a rough idea that the CCA can spend about $11,000 per carded athlete per year. (The CCA undoubtedly has some private-sector income as well, but this is a good first approximation.) If you divide the high-performance money equally between all 150 athletes in the "national team pool" instead, then you've only got about $3000 per athlete.

In a sport like cycling, where all of the serious competition is in Europe or Australia, and where equipment has a huge impact on performance, that kind of money doesn't go very far.

Q. But couldn't they have gone out of their way to provide more in Muenzer's case? She is an Olympic champion, after all.

Muenzer probably does get more than an equal share of the CCA's support, since she's one of their best athletes. And yes, the CCA probably could do more if they chose to. But would that be the wisest decision? The CCA's high-performance funding is determined, in large part, by the performance of their national team each year. So if you've got a limited amount of money, and if your future funding depends on the future performance of your national team, do you spend extra to make your 39-year-old Olympic champion happy? After all Muenzer, who was eliminated in the quarter finals at the 2005 world championships, is unlikely to ever reproduce her 2004 performance. For all their nice words, it's not really in the CCA's best interests to make sacrifices for their gold medalist.

Basically what it comes down to is that Canadian NSOs are underfunded. If the defending Olympic champion and her coach decide that they need to spend four months in Europe racing, then their NSO should be able to afford it, and not at the expense of the rest of the high performance program. That's not the reality in Canada today, though.

Q. Wait a minute. If NSO funding depends on athlete performance, then doesn't a big chunk of the 2005 money belong to Muenzer?

It's definitely true that the CCA's high performance allocation was partly due to Muenzer's Olympic gold medal; and now it sounds like Steve Lacell might use her financial difficulties to lobby for even more government support! I suppose you could argue that Muenzer deserves to reap the lion's share of the rewards, but I think that this argument ignores what's come before. It is likely that the CCA provided a lot of financial support to Muenzer before she became Olympic champion, using money that was "earned" by athletes like Curt Harnett, Alison Sydor, and Steve Bauer.

Q. What about private sponsorship? Can't Olympic champions get rich from endorsements?

You think that when you win a gold medal that your world is going to change, that you are going to have to open a couple of bank accounts. — Lori-Ann Muenzer

Canada had only three gold medal winners in 2004: Muenzer, gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, and flatwater kayaker Adam van Koeverden. Although none of these athletes is a household name — and none of them are getting rich — van Koeverden and (especially) Shewfelt compete in more popular sports than Muenzer. In addition, van Koeverden and Shewfelt are both 23 years old, and have the potential to be at the top of their respective sports for some time to come. Perhaps that is part of the reason that Shewfelt and van Koeverden have both signed with IMG, while Muenzer is left to promote herself, and has no sponsors.

But is there really so little interest in Olympic champions in Canada that Muenzer can't find anything? Adam Nelson, a shotputter from the US — not an Olympic champion — found somebody who was willing to pay him $12,000 for a one-month contract, and there's no shortage of Olympic medalists in the USA. Joanna Stone, a javelin thrower from Australia — also not an Olympic champion, and also in a country where they are relatively plentiful — earned $12,000 in sponsorships in 1999. I know that this isn't a conclusive sample, but there is some evidence that athlete sponsorships are much more widespread in other countries than they are in Canada.

Q. Why is it so difficult in Canada, then?

The standard explanation goes like this: corporations don't put money into amateur sport sponsorships because they don't pay. It isn't an effective marketing strategy because Canadians (their customers) don't care enough about sports, so corporations are better off spending their money on other types of advertising. If Canadians paid more attention to amateur sports, then corporate money would follow quickly after.

I think that there is some truth in this argument, in the sense that the amount of money directed into athletic sponsorships depends strongly on the level of public interest in amateur sports. However, I have a hard time believing that athletic sponsorships don't pay, because the price is so low. I don't know what kind of money van Koeverden or Shewfelt are making from endorsements, but how much do you think it would take to get Lori-Ann Muenzer's interest? The amount is probably measured in thousands of dollars, not tens of thousands. In the world of corporate advertising, that's peanuts.

The final point I would make about this argument is that it falsely absolves the corporations of any responsibility. It's true that Canadians don't care as much about amateur sport as Australians, but we shouldn't forget that some of those uncaring Canadians run Canadian corporations. I would bet that athletic sponsorships are not the most efficient way to advertise in Australia either; the fact that they are more common there is due to the fact that consumers and corporate executives believe that supporting amateur sport is a worthy cause, in a way that Canadians don't.