Maclean's Interview: Olympian Alex Baumann

Outspoken Olympian Alex Baumann talks to Ken MacQueen about Canada's chances in Beijing, and the hard road to excellence

Good enough was never good enough for Alex Baumann. His attitude won him two gold medals in the 200- and 400-m individual medley at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. His competitive spirit also earned him enemies after he retired from competition and demanded accountability from Canada’s failing swim program. He moved to Australia in 1991, where he became a key part of its vaunted elite sports machine. The Canadian Olympic Committee lured him back in 2007 to head its new Road to Excellence program. Australia won 49 medals and finished fourth at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. Canada won 14 medals, finishing 19th. The COC’s first priority is a top 16 finish in Beijing. The road has to start somewhere.

Q: Is it too much to expect that the programs you’re putting into place and the new funding for the Road to Excellence will impact Canada’s performance in Beijing?

A: Really the new funding from the federal budget that was announced this year hasn’t actually flowed yet to the sports, or to the Canadian sports centres. There have been funds that were committed from Sport Canada in addition to what was there before but this is additional money. We’ve tried to prioritize resources to those sports where we feel there is the greatest chance for medal potential, but it’s too early for Beijing. Our goal is certainly [London] 2012.

Q: Targeting certain sports as opposed to hosing the money to everyone caused ripples. What has changed in the summer Olympic athletes world?

A: Based on the winter athletes program, Own the Podium, we have a fairly good model that shows if you prioritize sports that have the greatest medal chance you are more likely to get the results. Certainly I saw that in Australia where we targeted and prioritized quite extensively. It’s a performance-based system. Ultimately high performance isn’t egalitarian. Some hard decisions had to be made.

Q: Jessica Zelinka, the heptathlete, missed qualifying for the 2004 Games in Athens by a hair. She had been fighting injuries all that year and she told me she wishes she would have had the support back then when she was a developing athlete.

A: That’s right. My focus is really on four things. The technical leadership is probably the most important thing, ensuring we have the best coaches to run the program. Training in competition is critical as well: providing athletes and coaches all the opportunities. Then, as you mention, the whole issue of injury management and prevention. Enhancing quality support services would be the third aspect. Obviously we’re pushing our athletes more and more and we need to ensure that we have injury management and injury prevention strategies, and ensure support services like sports sciences and physiology, psychology and biomechanics are there as well. That’s what the leading nations are doing. The fourth thing in terms of focus needs to be increasing the organizational capacity of national sporting organizations.

Q: Explain what you mean by that.

A: It’s no good giving a sport $500,000 to run a program and not having the quality people to implement the program.

Q: What sports are targeted for extra funding for Beijing?

A: There are quite a few. The category one sports are rowing, canoeing and diving. Category two sports are athletics, women’s soccer as a team sport. Swimming is a category three sport; women’s wrestling is a two.

Q: For the first time in Beijing, Canadian medallists will be paid for their performance [$20,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, $10,000 for bronze]. Is this an effective motivator?

A: To be honest I’m not sure that’s a huge incentive. I just think that it’s something we have to do. It’s not a huge amount, $20,000 for gold or whatever. But it does carry some weight in terms of rewarding the athletes for all the hard work. We’ve got to make sure we balance that out by making sure we’ve got the relevant programs and coaches in place.

Q: There has been a serious winter-summer funding imbalance. I doubt the average Olympic TV viewer realizes that when they wonder why our swim team doesn’t do as well as [speed skater] Cindy Klassen.

A: There has been a huge imbalance. The main reason is that Canada got the 2010 Winter Games and came up with a fairly innovative way to fund programs and athletes prior to the Games. VANOC [the Vancouver Organizing Committee] provides 50 per cent and the government provides 50 per cent: $11 million each per year over five years. I think that’s fantastic, that’s quite novel. Obviously we want to do well at those Olympics. The bar they’ve set is pretty high — to come No. 1 in terms of total medal count. But I do believe we have to aim high. There has been a considerable imbalance and hence the whole lobby effort for Road to Excellence for summer sports.

Q: Are you satisfied with what the federal budget provided this year?

A: We didn’t get everything we asked for but I do believe it will make a difference. Eight million dollars additional this year, $16 million next year, then $24 million ongoing.

Q: When you look at models for sporting excellence, what countries come to mind?

A: I still think Australia has a pretty good model though I do think they’ll probably slip a little bit in the rankings this time around. They have a fairly integrated and coordinated model with institutes and academies: a central institute in Canberra and state institutes. That’s taken a long time to develop. I still remember after [the 1976 Montreal Olympics] when Australia did extremely poorly with five medals. They started putting together a plan to have these institutes, but the results probably didn’t start to come from that until 1996. It takes some time. One of the features of the institute model is it really put a lot more full-time coaches in the system. I think that’s critical. I think the U.K. has started to get its act organized. It isn’t as coordinated as Australia but, particularly with the Olympics in 2012, they’ll be a force. You can’t really look at the Chinese model.

Q: Why not?

A: They just have so many kids. You can have an extremely high attrition rate.

Q: And they do.

A: That’s right. We can’t compare. Certainly Australia would be comparable to Canada with the tyranny of distance and the lack of population. Germany does a good job and also has a training centre or institute type of model. I’m sure they’ll do well. Plus the Netherlands. But you can’t take one model and transplant it into another country. We need to come up with our own model.Q: Some countries — Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. — are training some of their athletes with elite military units, or are drawing on the military for athletes. They do have a lot of the same skills.

A: Yeah, and the discipline as well.

Q: Are we doing anything like that?

A: Not at this point. One of the things that we need to take a look at in the future, because we have such a small talent pool, is ensuring that we have a proper talent identification and development program to identify those athletes that would be good in, for example, cycling or rowing and trying to fast-track them. It’s easier for physiological sports like cycling and rowing. You can do a number of tests and you can identify whether the athlete has the engine or not. Somehow we need to tap into the schools as well. And the whole idea of talent transfer. You can easily take an athlete from gymnastics and put them into diving with the right coaching and at the right age. For me the priority is coaching, getting that started and taking a look at going deeper in the sport. Talent identification and development would be part of that.

Q: This is exactly what the Chinese have done. They’ve airlifted, by my count, 50 to 60 top-level foreign coaches for these Games.

A: Yes, I think the role of the coach has changed in the last 15 or 20 years where it’s not just technical and tactical, particularly for head coaches. It’s also providing the necessary leadership to manage and drive a multi-disciplinary team of physiotherapists and sport science. That’s not easy. We have to ensure our coaches get the kind of professional development they need.

Q: There are reports that some foreign coaches in China fear athletes are being overtrained and are under crippling pressure to win.

A: It’s the home Olympics. I think in China it’s only the gold medal that counts.

Q: A former Russian rowing coach, now working for China, said he was told one gold medal is worth 1,000 silvers.

A: Exactly. Maybe that’s going to be an advantage for other countries. It has been known to happen, that where there is considerable pressure the Chinese won’t perform. But I wouldn’t count on that.

Q: Cathy Priestner Allinger, senior vice-president of sport for VANOC, says when they were designing the winter Own the Podium program, she was shocked to find that some of Canada’s best athletes harboured debilitating doubts that they were truly world class.A: The confidence issue.

Q: Exactly. Are Canadians unique in our doubts?

A: I don’t think so. But we do need an attitude adjustment. Certainly on the winter side we’ve seen where success breeds success. When you get up to that start gate or whatever, you really can’t have any doubts. Maybe it’s because we live so close to the [dominant] U.S. I don’t know. But you take a look at all the top athletes that have come from Canada, they have tremendous confidence in their abilities. Not arrogance, but confidence they can compete with the best in the world. I know when I competed prior to ’84, I went around the world to make sure that I raced the best swimmers. If you do well in those competitions, that gives you tremendous confidence.

Q: Didn’t you pay a price with the Canadian sporting establishment years ago for saying some of these very things, that we can’t, and shouldn’t, accept mediocrity?

A: Oh yeah. I just believe that there has to be accountability for performance. This is where I got criticized. But if we haven’t done well, we need to critically analyze why we haven’t done well — and change. Not to say, it wasn’t that bad and we should be satisfied with that. I come from having lived in Australia for 15 years and they get angry if they don’t do well. We have some of that, in hockey. We are starting to introduce a performance-based system. This is one of the reasons I came back, I do believe there is a renewed focus on excellence. As we all know, post-1988 [and the Ben Johnson Olympic doping scandal in Seoul], winning became a dirty word. There was mediocrity. It was okay just to participate, and I certainly don’t believe that. I think we should strive to be the best in the world. It doesn’t mean we win at all costs but I don’t think sport is any different than academics or art or business — we should strive to be the best in the world.

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