The Canadian and American press made a big fuss over the failure of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s “Own the Podium” Campaign to win the most medals at the winter Olympics in Vancouver. Canada’s ambitious campaign spent $117 Million over 5 years, but while the Canadians did better than they have before they still came up short to the Americans and Germans. Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) is absolutely giddy with the success they’ve had in winning the medals race at the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1932. The U.S. didn’t spend as much as the Canadians, but the $58M over 4 years was still a 55% increase over the previous Olympics.
So what’s the Handball connection? The connection relates to the potential lessons learned that these Olympic Committee’s might take in terms of resource allocation. First, let’s look at the Canadians. They spent a fortune in their quest for medals and the results were arguably not worth the investment. And at the same time they were spending this $117M on winter sports, Canadian National Handball athletes have been paying their own way to competitions in South America and Europe. So, maybe one lesson that could be learned is that if winning isn’t guaranteed maybe it makes more sense to throw a few bones towards all sports. I can’t speak for the Canadian Federation, but I bet they would have been pleased with a measly $2M spread out over 5 years. It beats practically nothing anyway.
For American Team Handball, U.S. winter Olympic success is a mixed bag. On the one hand USA Team Handball can take heart in the success of another sport where the U.S. has historically done poorly: Nordic Combined. Prior to Vancouver, the U.S. had never won a medal in this sport and until recently they never were even competitive. This time around, however, they owned the podium, winning 4 medals out of 9. News reports highlighted how increased support from the USOC has paid dividends as athletes received better coaching and financial support allowing them to continue competing into their late 20s. So the rallying cry could be “Hey, if they can do it, we can too.”
Unfortunately, though, I’m guessing that following in that sport’s success might be pretty difficult. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Nordic Combined, but I’m guessing there are not thousands and thousands of ski jumping/cross country skiing enthusiasts worldwide and most likely there are even fewer full time athletes training in this sport. With a smaller talent pool to beat all you’ve got to do is find a few talented athletes willing to put in the time and then provide them enough funding to allow them to do so. Trying to use the exact same formula for Team Handball is not practical due to the greater number of participants world-wide along with the higher degree of professionalization in the sport. There are elements of the Nordic Combined model that might be relevant, but success in Team Handball will require much broader grass roots development and greater assistance from outside entities like clubs and federations in Europe. Translation: It would require a lot more funding to replicate the Nordic Combined success.
Which is the problematic (for USA Team Handball, anyway) lesson learned that the U.S. Olympic Committee might take from this. Namely, concentrate your limited resources strategically in sporting disciplines where it will lead to the most medals for the U.S. The new CEO for the USOC, Scott Blackmun, indicated as much when he told the Associated Press: “Our job is to allocate the resources to the NGBs based on where we think they're going to have the greatest impact."
Adding to the degree of difficulty it will take to field a competitive Team Handball side is the “one medal and one medal only” handicap that all Olympic team sports have. Simply because some sports reporter for some newspaper years ago decided to do a tally of medals won and chose a format with only 1 medal being tallied for team sports, team sports will never have the potential “impact” that multi-discipline sports have.
One can almost envision the internal discussion that have either taken place or will surely take place at the USOC. “You mean it will cost x million dollars for us to just get competitive, let alone win a medal, and all we can get is one medal each for the men and women’s team. Why bother?”
The retort is that the Olympics are about a lot more than country medal counts in newspaper sidebars. This is not to say that winning isn’t important; it’s just that this over-riding emphasis on return on investment might need a little balancing out.
LA Times (22 Feb 10): So much for Own the Podium: US is a juggernaut at Vancouver Olympics: http://www.latimes.com/sports/nationworld/wire/sns-ap-oly-medals-race,0,3318655.story
Colorado Springs Independent (25 Feb 10): Canadian invasion: How Team USA has turned hope into history at an eminently satisfying Vancouver Winter Games: http://www.csindy.com/colorado/canadian-invasion/Content?oid=1633747
Montreal Gazette (23 Feb 10) These are the Americans' Games, we're sad to report: http://www.montrealgazette.com/sports/2010wintergames/These+Americans+Games+report/2602174/story.html
ABC News: USOC Leaders Stuck With Plan During Time of Crisis: http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory?id=9897847
Wikipedia: Nordic Combined at the 2010 Olympics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nordic_combined_at_the_2010_Winter_Olympics