In September 2004 Canadian Olympian and sports administrator Cathy Priestner Allinger and her husband, Todd Allinger, a biomechanist and sports scientist, put their names to a final version of an audacious report: Own the Podium—2010. It was the product of months of study and consultation and it would serve as a five-year plan to fulfill a commitment that sports administrators made earlier that year: that Canada would aim for the top medal count at its home Olympics in Vancouver. This was no small challenge for a country that had never won an Olympic gold on home turf and that had finished a distant fourth with 17 medals at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
The report aimed to give an “edge” to top Canadian athletes who had a dismal rate of converting their medal potential to podium finishes come Olympic time. It was a remarkably successful plan that delivered 14 gold medals for Canada in 2010, a Winter Olympic record for any nation. Fast-forward four years to the Sochi Winter Olympics and the Russians—stung by a poor performance in Vancouver—are gunning for similar host-nation success using a transplanted Canadian strategy.
If their playbook looks remarkably similar to Own the Podium, that’s because the deep-pocketed Russian Olympic Committee has hired the Allingers, and a host of Canadian coaching talent, with the goal of working the same magic for Russia’s underperforming winter Olympians. They may well pull it off, predicts Todd. “They’ll be top three in medal count,” he says, “and 14 gold medals isn’t unrealistic at all because of the home-field advantage.”
It was during the Paralympics in Vancouver that a delegation from the cowed and unhappy Russian sports delegation sidled up to the Allingers with a proposition: “Would you be willing to help us out with a similar program?” Russia limped out of Vancouver with 15 Olympic medals, only three of them gold. Gold is about the only colour that counts for a former sporting superpower, especially one whose president, Vladimir Putin, has staked much personal prestige, and an estimated $50 billion, on Sochi’s success as a showcase for the new Russia. The offer was a surprise for the Allingers, although their contracts, like those of most staff and coaches, expired at the end of the Olympics. “We weren’t seeking out anything,” said Todd, whose role with Own the Podium was winding up, as was Cathy’s job as executive vice-president for sport for the Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee. “We said, yeah,” he says. “It would be a challenge. It would be fun.”
There’s more pragmatism than mystery in the approach the Allingers applied in Vancouver and now Sochi. Their number-crunching strategy demands bigger expectations, less sport bureaucracy, greater accountability by coaches and athletes, and targeted spending on fewer sports—only those with a hope of success. Added to the mix in Vancouver was the unprecedented “Top Secret Program”—a science-heavy research effort administered by Todd to give athletes in select sports a psychological, physical and technological advantage.
The Allingers submitted a modified template for Russia and soon found themselves on a plane to Moscow for meetings with the head of the Russian Olympic organizing committee and with Alexander Zhukov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee. Their “little proposal” landed on Putin’s desk and things moved quickly thereafter. Zhukov summoned them to Acapulco, Mexico, for a meeting and gave them the go-ahead.
Todd says a confidentiality agreement prevents him from revealing the value of the contract with Allinger Consulting Inc. However, reports by Vedomosti, a Russian-language business daily, and the English-language Moscow News peg the deal at US$5 million. It is the first large-scale sporting contract of its kind for a foreign company. The money for the contract, and for a squad of imported sports talent, comes indirectly from a sponsorship deal with Gazprom, the monolithic state-dominated and largely Putin-controlled natural gas corporation. (The Russian Olympic Committee is precluded from spending on foreign expertise.) In similar fashion, much of the money for Own the Podium and Top Secret was underwritten by corporate sponsors.
For all the national pride and flag-waving at an Olympic Games, it’s also a multi-billion-dollar business. Amateurism was squeezed out long ago. There’s a limited professional pool of top expertise in the coaching and consulting ranks. Many follow the opportunities and shifting fortunes of the four-year Olympic cycle, and national sports federations—Canada included—ensure they are well-paid for doing so. Cathy Priestner, as she was then known, won a speed-skating silver medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. Since then she’s variously coached, managed the Calgary Olympic Oval during and after the 1988 Olympics, and held senior sports management roles at the Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver Winter Games.
The Allingers staffed up with a core group that included a videographer-translator, a project manager, and Jacques Thibault, a former speed skater and coach. Other experts were added as they evaluated each sports program, interviewed coaches, attended training camps and World Cup events. They also recommended a Russian equivalent to the Top Secret research program, which was instituted, though not as quickly as Todd would have liked.
Understandably, not all sports federations or coaches were overjoyed at the oversight. “At first they’re kind of like, ‘Why are you here?’ ” Todd says. But such visits usually brought knowledge exchange in the form of new video analysis tools, or training, recovery and nutritional advice. Identified gaps in technical and team staffing also brought new resources, which improved attitudes considerably. “Gradually we got their trust,” he says. “It’s kind of like you’re in with the Russians—or you’re out.”
Some staff were canned on the Allingers’ recommendation, including the women’s hockey coach. Ideally, they were replaced with Russian talent, but some key Canadians were imported. Former Canadian coaches now working for the Russians include Patty Vutric (curling), Stephen Fearing (moguls), Dmitriy Kavunov (aerials) and Willi Schneider (skeleton). On the Allingers’ recommendation they also hired away renowned bobsledder-turned-coach Pierre Lueders, who calls the shift to the Russians no different than an NHL coach swapping teams. “It’s a business now,” he told the Calgary Herald. “I paid my loyalties to Canada as an athlete, and then some.”
The Lueders hire raised some Canadian eyebrows, Todd admits, but he shrugs it off. “The Canadians could have him—all of them,” he says. “Us, too. They could have hired us, but they didn’t.” Perhaps it came down to money. There have been a few light-hearted accusations of “traitor” at Canadian sports conferences, Todd says. “Then after that they go: ‘Is there some work for me up there?’ ”
Todd predicts five closely bunched nations—Germany, Canada, U.S., Russia and Norway—will fight for the top spots on the medal count. He sees Canada and Russia in a close rivalry, although often not in the same events. Russia’s strength is in the more traditional sports like biathlon and cross-country. Canada is likely to reap more medals in the newer sports like freestyle skiing, snowboard and ski cross and slopestyle events.
It’s a massive undertaking to change in four years the course of a sporting leviathan that began its drift with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russians, at least in public, have made no Sochi medal predictions, while the brash Canadian Olympic Committee has announced its aim is to top the medal table. “They’re a bit leery of putting themselves out,” Todd says of the Russians. “It’s tough for them to say, ‘We want to win 14 [gold] medals and we want to be first.’ They don’t want to look bad if that doesn’t happen.”
The Allingers have heard more than their share of jokes about Siberia being their next posting if things don’t work out. But Todd is quietly confident that Russia will deliver a vastly improved performance in Sochi. Some Russian coaches, however, with dark humour and ingrained fatalism, aren’t as cocky. “If we don’t deliver,” they ask, “can we come to Canada?”