Mon, September 23, 2013

COC raising bar for Canadian athletes

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


The 18 medals Canadian athletes won in Beijing were a nice jump up from the 12 in Athens in 2004, where Canada ranked a disappointing 19th overall. (Pictured) Carol Huynh, of Canada, shows her gold medal after defeating Chiharu Icho, of Japan, in their 48kg women's freestyle gold medal wrestling bout at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. (REUTERS)

LONDON - If his background working for three major North American pro sports franchises taught Chris Overholt anything, it is to embrace a challenge.

So as he approaches his first Games as the chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Toronto native isn't about to back down on the weighty expectations his organization has challenged our athletes to meet here.

Hoping to build off of the success at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and an impressive summer showing at the Beijing Games four years ago, the COC is aiming for a top-12 showing in total medals by the time the London version winds up just shy of three weeks from now.

Overholt is well aware that aiming high can come with a price, but he didn't leave a prominent position with the NFL's Miami Dolphins just to soak up the Olympic experience.

"It's an ambitious goal -- we always felt it was ambitous -- but we're coming off one of our best ever summer performance in Beijing, where we tied for 14th," Overholt said in an interview Monday as the Canadian delegation readied itself for Friday's opening ceremony. "We believe that as an organization we should be about continuous improvement and we've got an eye on exactly that."

So beyond a top-12 showing in London, the next goal is a top-eight finish four years down the road in Rio. Those significant improvements won't come easily, especially since Canada has fallen off the map in swimming and track in field since 1996 in Atlanta, the previous time the country cracked the top 12 in medals. And it may just be stretching the limits of reasonable expectations.

The 18 medals Canadian athletes won in Beijing were a nice jump up from the 12 in Athens in 2004, where Canada ranked a disappointing 19th overall. The difficulty with cracking the top 12 this time around is that in China, it took 24 medals to hold down that spot, meaning the Canadian athletes will have to match the improvement from the previous four-year cycle.

But after two years on the job, Overholt believes a culture shift in the Canadian amateur sports scene has resulted in a more motivated group that is still taking on the fuel from the success of Vancouver 2010.

"I think we really look at Vancouver as transformative, not just for the athletes and the coaches, but for the country," Overholt said. "It changed the trajectory of the Olympic movement and one of the things we have tried to do over the past several months is try to be more aggressive connecting between the two Games."

Such a strategy can only work to a point, of course. Canada will always be a stronger Winter Games nation but Overholt and the rest of the COC team believe that the two can feed off each other.The afterglow from Vancouver has to be exploited and celebrated for as long as it can.

Though working mostly in professional sports, Overholt has a decorated resume that had him whispered to be in line for senior roles with both the Blue Jays and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. He left his home town and a position with MLSE in 2003 to become a vice president of marketing with the NHL's Florida Panthers. Three years later, it was on to another South Florida stop when he took over as VP of partnerships and new media with the Miami Dolphins, where he was involved in the staging of two Super Bowls.

"I take a little bit from all of those opportunities," Overholt said. "I've been really fortunate in my career to work with great organizations and for some great people."

Though it would be hard to convince a rabid NFL fan otherwise, the stakes are higher for Overholt now, a challenge of his own that he readily accepts. He knows that every two years, an entire nation stops to take notice of what is happening with amateur sports. His goal is to get fans to pay attention more often and then to have more reason to celebrate when they do.

To that end, the COC is preparing as if it was an athlete. Overholt said Canadian athletes were the first to check into the athlete's village, were the first to be registered with the London organizing committee and he and his staff and won't apologize for their ambitions goals.

"I feel like we are making strides, that we are helping in the process and getting better and better at it," Overholt said. "We talk every day about how we can contribute to the success of our athletes and coaches. Our whole mandate since he have been on the ground here is we are ready and prepared to mitigate every distraction for our team so that they can focus on being their best in the moment.

"Predictions are always challenging -- that's just a fact -- but the outcome will be known to all of us by the time these Games are done. The athletes and coaches are telling us these goals are realistic."

And why not aim higher, faster and stronger?

It is the Olympic way, after all.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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