Posted by Editor on 08/23/98
Canadian Cycling in Crisis
Cycling in Canada is at a crossroads. This season we have seen some of the best Canadian results in the history of the sport, including 3 women ranked in the top-10 world rankings, wins in major international events in both road and mountain bike disciplines (Linda Jackson and Alison Sydor), and some promising results by Canadian men (Roland Green, Chris Sheppard, Mark Walters and Gord Fraser). However, we have also seen dwindling numbers in the Junior ranks, rider boycotts and a lack of leadership at the highest levels of the sport. Overall, this paints a short-term picture where all is rosy, and a long-term view of a sport that will soon sink into mediocrity.
We believe that the Canadian Cycling Association (CCA) has become an organization that is reactive, rather than proactive, and that drastic and sweeping changes need to be implemented immediately in order to preserve and enhance our country's position in the cycling world. The strategic plan we propose would upset a lot of applecarts, however, something needs to be done NOW, otherwise, within a few years (and possibly a few months), Canadian cycling will begin a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover.
Currently the CCA enjoys a government funding level that puts it in the top 15 sports, based on results at the 1996 Olympics, world championships and other international events. However, that government ranking is based on the past. The riders who put cycling in this enviable position are, for the most part, either in the latter part of their careers, or have retired: Linda Jackson, Alison Sydor, Lesley Tomlinson, Curt Harnett, Brian Walton and Warren Sallenbach (to name a few). While these riders may continue to set the standard at an international level, they (and others such as Sue Palmer and Chrissy Redden) are likely to start retiring within the next 2-3 years (ie, expect a mass exodus after the 2000 Olympics). This will leave Canadian cycling with a hole that is difficult to fill. Consider also that injuries can, at any time, remove a top rider from competition, leaving a gapping hole in Canada's ability to maintain its ranking. A case in point is the continuing injury of Clara Hughes (double bronze medallist at Atlanta). While we are very hopeful that Clara will return to her high level of competitiveness (witness her results earlier this season), there is also no denying that, if she did not, Canada's ability to equal its cycling medal count at Atlanta (5) would be extremely low (Curt Harnett, another medal winner, retired after the Olympics).
We do not intend to denigrate the abilities of other Canadian riders, but the plain fact of the matter is that the CCA and the provinces have been coasting on past programs for too long. Many, if not all, of the current top-ranked Canadian riders gained their early experience and exposure to the sport in domestic national series, such as the Canada Cups for road and mountain biking. In the late `80s and early `90s, our national road series was the envy of American competitors, whom came up, en masse, to compete in real road racing (which they couldn't get in their own country). The list of names who either got their start or first came to national attention in this series is eye opening: Sydor, Palmer, Tomlinson, Redden, Hughes, Gord Fraser, Jacques Landry, Czeslaw Lukaszewicz, Steve Rover, Jill Smith, Edie Fisher ... the list goes on and on. Of course, the series is not the only reason why these riders went on to international standing, but we have heard time and again from these riders that it was their starting point.
The argument is made by the CCA that now riders must ride internationally (ie, in Europe or the United States) in order to be competitive. That may be so, once they outstrip the domestic scene, however, we are not seeing riders reach the point where they can make that jump. At the recent national championships for road, track and mountain bike, the numbers in the Junior ranks were appallingly low. It is easy to write this off as a natural cycle,. but is the CCA doing to combat it? The answer is ... nothing. In government funding studies, the CCA consistently scores high in elite competition, and consistently abysmal in rider development. It is simplistic and unfair to say that the CCA doesn't care about rider development. They do, but it comes down the hole that they have dug themselves into.
Government funding continues to be cut to all sports, and to make up the difference, sports look to sponsorships - a move that we applaud. However, the CCA has behaved in a rather shortsighted way in this area. In the late `80s, when the Canada Cup road series was very popular, Canadian Tire signed on as title sponsor, and the series flourished like never before. Prize lists increased, strong teams were formed just to follow the series across the country (up to 11 races, from coast to coast), and crowds upwards of 30,000 were seen at some criteriums. Then, Canadian Tire decided to move on to other promotional activities, and the series collapsed within a couple of years. Road racing in Canada has never been the same since. It is easy, and unfair, to blame the sponsor - they had a business goal to achieve, and while they were involved in the series they were an excellent sponsor, but business goals change, and sponsors move on.
Move forward to the present: Tim Hortons has been an excellent sponsor, however, the sponsorship is up for review this fall, and all a Tim Hortons spokesperson will say is that they "are reviewing [their] entire marketing plan". Tim Hortons is the only sizable cash sponsor that the CCA has; without it many national projects would be doomed or in serious trouble. This has led to a CCA administration that spends more time servicing the sponsor then dealing with their primary mandate of developing the sport. It has meant that any aspect of the sport that does not directly impinge on the sponsor (meaning any non-national championship event) does not get either the attention or funding it requires - a vicious downward spiral, since the lack of funding and attention makes it even more difficult to attract potential sponsors to non-marquee activities.
The implications for the Canada Cup series after this season are horrifying. Who would want to buy into a promotional vehicle that has had:
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