Why Canadian women are dominating in Rio

How scheduling, math and the Penny Oleksiak spark led to hardware for Canada’s female athletes

Team Canada celebrates their victory winning the Bronze medal after the Women's Bronze Medal Rugby Sevens match between Canada and Great Britain on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Deodoro Stadium on August 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (David Rogers/Getty Images)

Team Canada celebrates their Bronze medal victory in rugby sevens on Day 3 (David Rogers/Getty Images)

The dominance of Canadian women in the first week of the Rio Olympics—every one of the country’s first dozen medals was won by a woman—can be attributed in large part to scheduling, simple math and strategic funding decisions. But there’s also a hearty dose of the expectation-shattering magic that sometimes takes hold in sports. It can’t really be explained, only revelled in.

First, the obvious factors. Some of this is simply due to scheduling: events where Canadian men have done well in recent years, such as canoe sprint, rowing and athletics, happen in the latter part of the Games. Canada sent 314 athletes to Rio, of which 186 are women, making for a 60/40 split. This country has a long way to go in evening out sports participation—according to Statistics Canada, as of 2010, 35 per cent of males aged 15 and older played a sport, compared to 16 per cent of females—but it does better than many. So Canadian girls and women have more development opportunities than many of their counterparts worldwide, at the same time that competition in men’s sports draws from a broader pool.

RELATED: The making of Penny Oleksiak: Our best-ever Summer Olympian

That feeds into the funding of amateur sports in Canada. Own The Podium (OTP) was created in 2004 in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It was intended to ensure that the embarrassment of Montreal and Calgary—Canada became the only country to host multiple Olympics without winning a single gold medal—didn’t happen again. OTP explicitly invests in sports where Canada has the best chance to pick up hardware. In a couple of cases—soccer, to the tune of $2.2 million, and rugby, funded with $1.9 million for 2016-17—that means women’s programs get funding and men’s do not, because Canadian women are contenders while the men don’t stand a chance.

OTP has plenty of critics who decry it as myopic, mercenary or contrary to the spirit of athletic competition, but its defenders—including Dominick Gauthier, former freestyle skiing coach and co-founder of B2ten, an organization that funnels private funding to Canadian athletes as a complement to OTP—see it as smart and necessary. “The resources are so limited, and if we want to fight against the strongest nations in the world, we have to do targeted funding; we have no choice,” he says. “If we don’t do that, we might as well stop counting medals.”

Of the 12 medals Canadian women won in the first week in Rio, six were earned in the pool. That was triple the haul in London, where men were the only Canadian swimming medallists. This year, the 30-member Canadian swim team is two-thirds female, because the talented women in the pipeline have matured, while the men are still developing, says Swimming Canada CEO Ahmed El-Awadi. His organization began an aggressive new approach to training and competition since the London Olympics, reorganizing their national training centres, bringing in new senior staff and setting a goal to be a top-eight nation in medal counts by 2020 (Canada now ranks sixth, well ahead of schedule, and a big leap from 15th in 2012). The organization also strategically targeted its women’s relay teams with funds and training; they earned two medals in Rio.

MORE: At the Rio Olympics, sexism runs rampant

But the way the plan has paid off this summer is quite literally off the charts. Swimming Canada employs sophisticated computer models that crunch stats from medallists at the last six Olympics as they grow through various age groups, in hopes of predicting the results for individual swimmers and the Canadian team as a whole. For Rio, the predictive models spit out a range of between zero and six possible medals; what the organization really expected was three.

Bronze medalists Katerine Savard, Taylor Ruck, Brittany MacLean and Penny Oleksiak of Canada pose during the medal ceremony for the Women's 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay Final on Day 5 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Bronze medalists Katerine Savard, Taylor Ruck, Brittany MacLean and Penny Oleksiak of Canada pose during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay Final on Day 5 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Swimmers feel particular pressure at the Olympics because their events kick off the competition, El-Awadi says, so there’s a sense that whither the swim team, the nation goes, too. “When we start winning medals in the first week, it does send some great energy throughout all of Canada and all of Team Canada,” he says. “And when we’re not, it may have the opposite effect.” Going into Rio, Swimming Canada knew they’d hit the right rhythm with their new approach and they had a roster of women who were “the most powerful swimmers no one’s ever heard of,” as El-Awadi describes them. What they needed to set it all alight was a spark. That spark’s name is Penny Oleksiak. After her surprise silver medal on the first day of competition and the ecstatic momentum it generated, she and the rest of Team Canada—especially the women—just didn’t stop.


Why Canadian women are dominating in Rio

  1. Cuz women are good

    Men are playing Bob and Doug

    • Your asinine comment disproves your first assertion so “good job” on that. By the way good job to the Macleans moderators. You’re incompetent, lazy, or women sharing this woman’s pitiful sentiment.

      • Like I said….the Bob and Doug mentality

  2. According to our sexist prime minister Justin, they are NOT women, they are GIRLS. Because it is 1816.

    • Well then you’ll feel right at home.

  3. I had a boss in 1988 that told me he would always hire a woman over a man because they always worked harder…they had something to prove. I have read many statements about how our education system is anti-boy because girls seem to be excelling and boys don’t. I have seen some very tough Canadian male athletes. No one was tougher than Steve Nash. He had a back problem his whole playing career and that is why he never sat on the bench but laid on the floor when he wasn’t on the court. If he was in the off season and was living in New York, he walked everywhere doing lunges. He could have been on the national soccer team. He excelled in that sport as well. I remember watching him a playoff game get his nose broken and yank it back into place so he could play on. His eye swelled shut. He went for emergency surgery and kept playing in the series. He could dribble a basketball with his feet and make a basket over and over. That takes dedication. Those women athletes have that. They are like Steve Nash. They have heart and something to prove. That soccer team was ranked 10th coming in to the Olympics and they are playing for the bronze medal.

    • Your boss hired women cuz he could pay them less

      • No. We were unionized so the pay scale was the same for both genders but keep up your men-hating comments. Have one for Steve Nash who one the MVP two years in a row?

      • If you could pay women less, no one would hire a man. You live in a deluded fantasy world where you love to play the victim. If you are underpaid in your career, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you appear to spend every waking moment on Maclean’s, posting utter nonsense.

        • That would be why unions support equal pay, dude.

          I keep forgetting how much of a newbie you are…….I work online, and drop in here for amusement and breaks. I’m not the one playing victim. LOL

          • Equal pay is the law em, so what unions support is irrelevant. As usual, when losing an argument, you avoid it post post incoherent gibberish.

        • Equal pay is the law because women fought for it…..and one of the arguments they used was that lower pay for women meant men would lose jobs.

          Unions understood that and adopted the rule.

          If you spent less time attacking me, and more time thinking, you might get somewhere.

          • To recap, you made the uniformed comment (probably redundant to point out that your comment is uniformed since they all are) that Gage’s boss hired a woman because he could pay her less. I responded that if this were possible, that no one would hire a man, because they could lower their wages by simply hiring women. Rather than addressing this obvious point, you say that unions support equal pay and that I need to think more. I realize that replying to you is akin to arguing with a drunk, but it is amusing how manage to be wrong 100% of the time. Now run along back to your imaginary job.

        • Ark2….doubtful Gage’s boss did any such thing considering the year…..but she is as illiterate as you are so I let it go

          Neither of you understand this topic….you simply want to rant..and I have work to do.

          Bye bye.

          • I’m sure you do have work to do emily. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a 70 year old to perform an imaginary analyst job. Make sure to take lots of breaks and visit Maclean’s. We wouldn’t want an article to be posted and not receive the classic emily one-liner in the comment section.

          • The year was 1988. I was 25. Unions existed granny. I worked for a phone company. I left there for university. A lot you know. I got as good an education as you pretend you did. I had a baby while in university…..literally…on the long weekend and returned to school on the Tuesday. I get the point. I had a mother who got her degree while raising 9 kids, working full time and taking night school. I worked two jobs and taught one kid at home. I know women work harder because they do what they have to. I know men aren’t Bob and Doug McKenzie’s because I didn’t marry one. I married a Steve Nash.

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