Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Moving the System Forward: A Gold Medal for the Organizing Leaders of the Beijing Olympics

Life seeks to organize so that more life can flourish. Systems are friendlier to life. They provide support and stability. They also provide more freedom for individual experimentation.

---Margaret Wheatley, A Simpler Way, p.33.

The Chinese have done Canadian Sports a favour. By doing the job so well, they brought to the foreground the serious inadequacies in our system, starting at the political level. In the words of the chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Chris Rudge, “the rest of the world is not standing still”. It is time for the Canadian government to step up “with the big boys”.

The Chinese are to be commended for an outstanding 2008 Olympics. They spared no expense and left no stone unturned. The Chinese demonstrated what happens when leaders pay attention to the whole system. The results speak for themselves---copious medals for the Chinese and a “wow” experience overall for everyone. London and Vancouver have their work cut out for them. A new record has been set for Olympic organizing.

It’s a level of organizing where the leader’s eyes see the whole network, the nodes within it and how to connect and strengthen the nodes. Meticulous attention by the Chinese to the assets of the system (their athletes and the tools and resources needed) enabled them to grow and perform at outstanding levels. The Chinese organizing leaders repeated the approach for the event, visioning, planning, executing, learning and adapting as the story unfolds---the “bird’s eye” view as well as the grassroots on the ground view. This is the ultimate challenge and central purpose of leadership, particularly at the top. In many instances it is not done well. Fragmentation reigns.

Take the system for golf. It may be accepted as an Olympic sport in time for the Olympics in London. But, in Canada we are not well prepared for this possibility. Australia, which won 46 medals in Beijing in comparison to Canada’s 18, has about 25 players at the PGA golf level. Canada has three. The difference is a well-funded organized system in Australia. Compare that to what exists for young Canadian pros. They must find their own funding through private sources and figure out independently how to train themselves. It’s catch as catch can, as the saying goes or every person for himself.

The irony is that in the last decade a variety of stakeholders such as the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA), the Canadian Junior Golf Association (CJGA), the coaching bodies and Sport Canada have joined forces to create a strong pipeline of amateur golfers. Then, everything ends, placing precious talent in a precarious position. The “war for talent” doesn’t exist in golf. No attention, meager results. RCGA acknowledges the issue in its recently published “Long term Player Development Plan”. The how of getting there is not detailed.

Fortunately, our leaders within the Olympic movement recognized a few Olympics ago that something had to be done if we were to hold our own against other equivalent countries, most notably the G8. They have fought hard for significant increases in funding and are still doing so. Slowly, the results are beginning to show. According to Rudge, 35 improvements have been made in the COC’s athlete support programs since Athens. However, in a August 25, 2008 Globe and Mail article by James Christie, Rudge also emphasizes that Canada needs more athletes in its system, more and better sport facilities and increased federal support.

But, comparatively speaking, Australia invested $250M in 434 athletes to Canada’s $111M for 331 athletes. Great Britain will be pumping in $1.16B of funding with 60 per cent from taxpayers. How are we going to keep up to the accelerated pace of other countries without our Prime Minister and his provincial counterparts throwing their weight behind sport? For goodness sake, Stephen Harper didn’t even show up at the Olympics!

Many argue that the problem in Canada is cultural. We just don’t get as excited about sports the way other countries do. But judging from our love affair with hockey and the high degree of grassroots, community participation in all manner of sports, it seems a long shot to point the finger at a cultural problem. Plain and simple it’s about leadership and priorities.

Any system can be improved with leadership “will”. Communities across Canada demonstrated this par excellence in advance of the Beijing Olympics. For every one of our athletes who won a medal, let alone those who achieved personal bests, there is a community behind them of volunteer coaches, facilities of varying quality for training and practicing and small amounts of funding for out of community events. This is where it starts. But, to continue, we need leadership at all levels of government to pick up from the communities to enable our athletes to compete at world events. Converting local championships to provincial, national, world and then to Olympic medals requires a “Chinese-type” focus and commitment.

There’s a limit though to regimentation in any system. Like nature, to improve, a system needs lots of freedom to try many things out and see what works. It’s a bit messy. Various forms of democracy are spreading around the world because humans thrive within them. It’s not far-fetched to assume that we, in other countries, have contributed to China. How that will shape up is yet to be seen.

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