Before I launch into today’s tirade, I would like to take a moment to apologize to my international reading audience. I realize that when I post about things specifically Canadian, I may be boring you. Today I am at risk of making it one of those times, though I will do my very best to keep it spicy enough that you read on anyway. The sporting universe shares some common ground across sports and countries, so perhaps what I have to say today will provoke a few of you to question the accountability in your own countries’ federations.
Last month, after I was tipped off (not by an athlete, by the way, but by a concerned supporter of an athlete) that the Rio criteria were being placed behind EC’s High Performance firewall, I wrote two posts that didn’t mince words about what I thought of such a move. I also promised to contact Sport Canada, which I then did. And I’m sorry you’ve had to wait so long for the follow up, but such is life when November is the best time of year to cram one’s schedule with out-of-country clinic engagements.
Thanks to an always-helpful individual within Canada’s sporting bureaucracy, I was able to gain the email address of Ian Dalling, Senior Program Officer at Sport Canada. Mr. Dalling was initially very responsive to my email, which contained the following explanation and questions (honey-to-vinegar rating 8/2):
The newly created High Performance department at Equine Canada has decided that the selection criteria for Rio 2016 are to be given only to high performance athletes, with the direction that they are not to be shared with anyone. This is a departure not only from Equine Canada historically when it comes to equestrian Major Games (criteria have always been publicly available and published on the website), but it’s also in sharp contrast to the US, which has published all its Rio criteria online.
I want to know whether EC can legally withhold this information from me and from its membership, as well as the public. I am a member in good standing of Equine Canada (and in fact, my horse was declared for the Pan Am Games team in 2015), but I have been refused access to the criteria in any discipline.
I thought that Sport Canada would be the right organization to contact with my question.
From Mr. Dalling’s reply suggesting we speak on the phone, I leaped delightedly to the mistaken conclusion that I was to receive some meaningful information for the article that will be in the February 2016 issue of Horse Sport.
The day before I was to call Mr. Dalling, he sent me an email to say that, since I was contacting him as a journalist (and ignoring my self-description as a concerned member of EC), he had decided I should go through Sport Canada’s media department. My shoulders slumped in dejection as I read his email. And this time I leapt to the right conclusion, that Mr. Dalling’s message was to be the last communication of any value I would receive from anyone in Sport Canada. But I smiled bravely and told Mr. Dalling I would certainly send my questions to the media department. I also cheerily noted (honey-to-vinegar 7/3) that my questions would be framed as a request for quotes from him, and not just some verbiage that had been pre-digested by the spin team.
This isn’t much of a cliffhanger. I imagine most of you already know what happened next.
I sent the media department the same message I had initially sent Mr. Dalling (who apparently doesn’t understand the concept of forwarding someone’s email to a relevant department and copying both parties with the request that the department take care of the inquiry), and spelled out in no uncertain terms what kind of answer I was looking for (honey-to-vinegar 6/4): “As I said to Mr. Dalling, I am still hoping that the response I get will be quotable as having come from him, even though I assume you will be sending the response”.
And here (sound of drum roll) is what I got back from a Len Westerberg:
Further to your recent query, please find our response below.
Sport Canada’s mission is to enhance opportunities for all Canadians to participate and excel in sport. To accomplish its objectives in this regard, Sport Canada provides funding to eligible national sport organizations (NSOs), including Equine Canada Hippique, to support programs for national teams, national championships, coaching and officiating development, as well as other various nationally based initiatives.
Equine Canada Hippique is the national sport governing body for equestrian sport in Canada.
It is the responsibility of NSOs such as Equine Canada Hippique to establish, communicate and implement national team selection criteria and related appeals policies.
Equine Canada Hippique indicates on its website that “2016 Olympic Criteria are available to Canadian high performance athletes upon request.” Relevant contact information is provided for each of the Olympic and Paralympic disciplines.
Equine Canada Hippique has released a statement indicating that the organization “will no longer publish Canadian Equestrian Team (CET) qualifying criteria online” in order “to protect the intellectual property of [Equine Canada Hippique] and its expert volunteers, and to protect the strategies of our athletes.
(smell of male bovine excrement)
The next move was mine (honey-to-vinegar 4/6):
Hi – thanks for your reply. What you have provided is no more than a reiteration of what I already know, and includes no quotes from Mr. Dalling, which I specifically asked for. Let me ask my questions a bit more pointedly:
- Equine Canada has made an unprecedented decision to not share its selection criteria publicly. I want to know if this move is legally possible for a sport organization in Canada, given various rights provided by policies such as the Freedom of Information Act.
- Do other sports in Canada also follow this policy of not sharing Olympic selection criteria publicly? If so, please give me examples of sports that have adopted this policy.
- What is Sport Canada’s position on the advisability of not publishing selection criteria? the SDRCC specifically states that it advises all selection criteria, including for Olympic Games, be published on line with public access.
I hope that these questions will inspire answers that are of material value for my article.
Before I share the next steaming pile I received from the Sport Canada media machine, I would like to bring you up to speed on what is posted unequivocally on the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada’s website in a handy document they call ‘Selection Criteria for Major Events in Sport: Guidelines and Tips’. In at least two places, the SDRCC states in very plain language that sport organizations are strongly advised to post selection criteria publicly on line. In fact, in the section on communication and implementation of criteria, under the header ‘musts’, there is an assumption that posting online is the LEAST that a sport organization needs to do: ‘ Prepare an effective communication plan to reach all of the athletes affected by your selection criteria; a plan that goes beyond simply posting it on your website.’
And now onto Sport Canada’s next response, which in the fine tradition of elephantine government institutions marching to a mandate of form over content, I received not from Mr. Westerberg, but instead from someone called Tim Warrington (warning: you might want to hold your nose):
Good Afternoon Ms. Robinson,
Please allow us to reiterate that it is the responsibility of national sport organizations (NSO), such as Equine Canada Hippique, to establish, communicate and implement national team selection criteria and related appeals policies.
Sport Canada encourages the NSOs to resolve issues relating to selection criteria and other matters in a fair and efficient manner. If someone has concerns about Equine Canada Hippique processes, policies or decisions, they may consider appealing it through the organization’s formal appeal process.
Additionally, for reference purposes only, we have reviewed information available in our Sport Funding and Accountability Framework (SFAF) literature and information that is available on the SDRCC website and we are providing the relevant portions below:
B5.2: Team Selection Process
B5.2.3: The team selection criteria is made available to the National Sport Organization’s membership.
Team selection accounts for the majority of the disputes brought forward to SDRCC. There are many ways to prevent team selection disputes from arising and many people have an important role to play in this process:
- National Sport Organizations and their high performance committees:
Responsible NSOs recognize the importance of a sound team selection policy to ensure that the best athletes are indeed selected for optimal performance of the team, and also to avoid disputes leading up to a major competition. The criteria must also be communicated to the athletes long before the start of the qualification period. The entire training program of athletes will be based on meeting these criteria to secure their selection to the team, so it would be unreasonable to communicate these criteria only a few weeks or a few days before. Of course, once a team selection policy approved and published, the NSO must ensure that it is implemented as intended.
There is just so much to love about Mr. Warrington’s message. If I thought the previous response from Westerberg was an admirable attempt to get rid of me by simply hurling at my face the background information that I plainly already had in my possession, Warrington is a gold medalist in this regard. Probably my favourite thing is that Warrington chose to quote the SDRCC advice that I had already directly referenced in my message, but he was careful to choose the bit that didn’t specifically mention posting criteria publicly on line. However, I am willing to give him half a point out of a possible score of ten for at least having the decency to include the line about making criteria ‘available to the National Sport Organization’s membership’. That was kind of not really sort of accidentally answering one of my questions.
And now for my final missive (honey-to-vinegar 0/10):
Dear Mr. Warrington: I will be using the responses Sport Canada sent me on my blog. I will be pointing out that Sport Canada failed to answer my questions with anything of substance, instead sending me information that I had already said I had found – or simply ignoring the question. In essence, your responses read very much like a blow off, rather than a genuine desire to reassure the Canadian equestrian community of its concerns…I don’t expect to receive any further clarification from you, but I will ask one more question that is at the root of the matter: is Equine Canada accountable in any meaningful way to Sport Canada (and Sport Canada in turn to the Ministry of Heritage)? If not, that leaves Equine Canada in a position of near-absolute power over its members, including its high performance athletes.
(smell of smoke emanating from my ears)
Of course I received nothing further from Sport Canada’s crack communications team. And it goes without saying that, despite the fact that I copied Mr. Dalling on all my messages to his media minions, he chose to let them take care of my inconvenient line of questioning.
If Own The Podium has any extra cash laying about, I would like to propose that they give it to their own parent organization. Sport Canada is an obvious gold medal contender in the sport of treating valid questions from the public/journalists with utter contempt.
So the bad news is this: if you are an athlete, owner, family member, fan or just an EC member wanting assurance that your national federation is accountable to a greater power, I’ve learned there is almost no chance of that being the case.
Since Sport Canada couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge the existence of my very simple question about whether other sports in Canada have ‘secret criteria’ policies, I took all of ten minutes out of my morning today and googled the following: ‘gymnastics canada rio criteria’. I then replaced ‘gymnastics’ with nine more sports: canoe/kayak, athletics, cycling, rowing, boxing, taekwondo, sailing, volleyball and judo. And guess what. Every single one of them has its Rio criteria published on line. Not only that, they all use the same PDF template that I assume comes from Sport Canada itself, but that EC is not using. How would I know, you ask, given that the criteria are secret? I was granted the Dressage criteria after asking for them and bolstering my request with the reminder that my horse had been declared for this year’s Pan Am Dressage Team.
I’d like to leave you now with the link to another, more polite, rant about Canada’s sport organizations and their relationships with athletes that was published in last Friday’s Ottawa Citizen (thanks to my Personal Google Alert – you know who you are). If only our equestrian athletes could just find the courage to speak out publicly on their own behalf.