Why Canada urgently needs a new vision for sport
Athletes from nearly every national sport organization in Canada are rising in pain and anger to speak out against toxic cultures of abuse, neglect and discrimination.
Athletics, artistic swimming, gymnastics, rugby, bobsleigh, hockey, soccer and rowing come together to demand a sport system that is respectful, healthy and inclusive for all. Athletes across the country are calling on sport leaders to effect systemic change.
While I am encouraged that Canada’s Minister of Sport, Pascale St-Onge, is forcing sports organizations to follow the new independent third-party verification process and explore better oversight frameworks, this is not enough. As an athlete and sports researcher, I believe that we need to move beyond discussions, round tables and working groups, towards a positive vision of sport in Canada; something to fight for, not just against.
The sport-centric model
When I rowed for Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, the sport faced a similar crisis in the form of doping. At the 1988 Olympics, women’s rowing saw Eastern Bloc countries win all but two of the 18 medals on offer – a virtually clean sweep of medals, albeit hardly ‘clean’.
After several sixth and seventh place finishes, we knew we had to change our mindset in order to compete in this new performance-enhanced arena. We started by placing sport at the center of our common objective: performance and not podiums; a chronometer gold medal, not a gold medal.
The goal of rowing is not to have greater muscle mass, size or strength than your competitor, but greater speed. Once optimal speed became our common goal, we formed a true partnership with our coaches, administrators, sports science practitioners and competitors. We were all seen as equals – the key to a psychologically safe environment where all are free to be, contribute, learn and challenge each other.
With the partnership came a more holistic view of the sport. Speed in rowing can only be achieved by harnessing synchrony, power, rhythm, balance and diversity. Optimal speed, like any optimal achievement, is the pursuit of beauty and excellence for the greater good of humanity and the world.
With human and social development at the center of our concerns, we had to take care of ourselves and each other, open to innovation, inclusive of potential newcomers, aligned with our purpose, confident in our process and committed in our relationships, our community and our sport. .
We then won several gold medals at the 1992 Olympics in a sport still plagued by doping. We have become leaders in our community and remain intact as a crew.
The 1992 team members inspired our 2021 Tokyo gold medal in the women’s eight to be built on the same core principles: shared goals, communication, clarity and respect. It’s a model of what sport can be in Canada.
Sport is the solution
As an educator and specialist in leadership and communication, I work to identify organizational mechanisms that ensure quality sports experiences in order to fully realize the benefits of sport for society. I have always found the truth in sport.
Our research team, made up of professors and graduate students from Royal Roads University and the University of Victoria, discovered that sport holds the solution to its own problems.
We propose a partnership model for sport in Canada that puts “optimal sport experiences” at the center of decision-making, addresses the power imbalance at the root of abuse, and offers a plan for cultural and organizational change that shifts the focus from the podiums to the performances.
Our goal is to restore sport to its rightful place in society as a source of growth and human and societal development. We recommend concrete strategies for organizational and procedural change, such as expanding measures of success to include impact on leadership, physical and psychological health and safety, and performance outcomes.
Cultural integrity depends on the integration of human and social health and development principles into all organizational texts, practices and behaviors. Achieving checks and balances in sport therefore relies on transparent information sharing, explicit selection criteria, clarity of roles and expectations, and published accountability frameworks.
Canadian sport misses the point
Sport in Canada misses the point: the goal of sport is human and social development, not medals. Sport is a partnership, not a battle, and competition is collaborative, not zero-sum. After all, the Latin derivative of competition is competitor or fight together.
Sport has the greatest participation and support of any human endeavor in the world and therefore can have the greatest impact on human development. Good sport benefits athletes, sports organizations and society as a whole.
A sport-centric model in Canada would make the optimal sport experience our common goal, balancing power throughout our system. From little leagues to beer leagues to professional leagues, when human and social development is at the center of sport, health, joy, community and success are the natural results.