Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Own the Podium now a splendid idea

Britain adopting much-slagged Oly program

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Britain is officially eating crow just a month after its sportswriters' unrestrained trashing of the Vancouver Games and Canada's controversial Own the Podium program for Olympic athletes.

The head of UK Sport -- the funding body for elite British athletes and a key player in preparing for the 2012 Summer Games in London -- says his country will emulate Own the Podium in a bid to match Canada's record-setting, host-nation performance at Vancouver.

"At first, a lot of people were critical of Canada's Own the Podium program, saying that it wasn't very sporting and it had some bad press," UK Sport chief executive John Steele told a media briefing last week as Britain unveiled its medal projections for the 2012 Games.

"But as soon as it started to do well, then everyone thought it was a great idea and were a lot less critical," he noted. "We will probably use a different strap line but the idea for 2012 will be very similar, and it is something we definitely want to use as a tool for success."

Steele added: "Medals are the aim of our funding, as we have a responsibility to the British public."

The comments, UK Sport spokesman Russell Langley told Canwest News Service on Thursday, mainly indicate the agency is "just continuing what we started last year with Team 2012" -- and that, like Own the Podium, "a private investment stream is key in funding our athletes to supplement the public funding we already get."

But Steele's praise for Canada's medal-winning strategy for Vancouver 2010 -- which ultimately yielded a best-ever total of 26 medals for this country, including a Winter Olympics record 14 golds -- is sure to redden some faces in the British press corps.

Caustic columns by several U.K. journalists -- including one early in the Winter Games that claimed Own the Podium had offended all visiting athletes from around the world -- became one of the main storylines in the days following the opening ceremony at the Vancouver Olympics.

Canada's "highly unpleasant Own the Podium program, in which they seek to exploit home advantage to the last nanosecond," wrote Times of London correspondent Simon Barnes, "has alienated the world they are supposed to play host to."

He added: "Home athletes always have an advantage: getting ugly about it is neither necessary nor appropriate."

Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel provoked outrage when he used the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili to skewer Canada's blueprint for victory and the Vancouver Olympics in general.

"Canada wanted to Own the Podium," Samuel wrote under a headline lambasting "Canada's lust for glory" at the Games.

"This morning they can put their Maple Leaf stamp on something more instantly tangible: the nondescript little box carrying the lifeless body of Nodar Kumaritashvili back to his home in Bakuriani, Georgia."

The Guardian's Laurence Donegan also slagged Own the Podium and opined that Canadians, "in pursuit of their own Olympic dream, appear to have forgotten that national characteristic for which they are best known: politeness."

British sports officials, however, declined to join the Fleet Street bandwagon.

Sebastian Coe, the legendary middle-distance runner and head of the London Olympics organizing committee, applauded Canada's "very, very successful" hosting of the Games and expressed gratitude to Vancouver organizers for offering advice and an example ahead of London 2012.

"Our Games will be better for the help we have had here," he said last month.

Own the Podium had come under fire even before the Vancouver Games, largely as a result of complaints from American athletes that they were getting less access than their Canadian rivals to Olympic venues for training.


-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2010 A19

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