COC CEO David Shoemaker

COC CEO 2023 Session Recap

Every year, our membership and broader sport community come together for the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Session – an opportunity to discuss long term objectives, top-of-mind issues, and system-wide solutions. As a not-for-profit organization, it also serves as the COC’s annual general meeting. Apart from the important organizational business conducted at an AGM, the focus of the weekend was about the needs of Canadian athletes and the sport system going forward. 

We were joined by guest speakers (thank you Estelle Metayer and Nouman Ashraf!) who encouraged us to consider new ways to think about embracing change, reminded us about the importance of sport, and pushed us to find out how we, as individuals in a system, can be most effective. Which was fitting, because it was clear that what the system needs is strong safe sport initiatives, effective athlete representation, and the resources to make it all work – three areas that are inexorably linked and require meaningful system-wide change to achieve.  

I’ve said before that an underfunded system is one that can’t be completely safe. A lack of funding results in a lack of staff, burned out existing staff, and a lack of support for athletes and coaches. It also strains organizations who rely heavily on volunteer support to function, as executives are expected to go above and beyond to keep their organizations afloat. Unfortunately, the 2023 federal budget did not see an increase to sport funding that would have helped address many of these issues. Despite this, every Session attendee, from athletes to executives, reaffirmed their commitment to finding solutions.

On Saturday we hosted a panel on athlete representation, moderated by Olympic medallist, President of Commonwealth Games Canada and Chair of the OLY Canada Commission, Claire Carver Dias, that featured: 

  • Two-time Olympic champion Rosie MacLennan, Chair of the COC Athletes’ Commission 
  • Olympic bobsleigh pilot Cynthia Appiah, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton Athlete Representative 
  • Helen Manning, Chair of the Athletics Canada Board of Directors 
  • Dustin Heise, Chief Executive Officer of Canada Snowboard
  • Governance Expert Shai Dubey from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University

The clear takeaway was that sports can’t shy away from effective athlete representation; they have to embrace it. I deeply believe that by encouraging and supporting athlete representation through training and mentoring, sport will become safer at all levels. At the COC, our Athletes’ Commission is heavily consulted about issues that affect athletes, and two of its members, Rosie MacLennan and Inaki Gomez, are members of the COC’s board of directors. We also have 20 Olympians, Paralympians and Pan American Games athletes, including Rosie and Inaki, on staff and on the boards of directors at the COC and the Foundation, all of whom play key roles in our day-to-day operations. 

The discussion continued on Sunday when, as part of the COC’s ongoing commitment to supporting a safe, inclusive, and barrier-free sport system, we hosted a workshop on safe sport facilitated by Deloitte. The workshop brought together more then 200 athletes and leaders from across the Canadian sport system to have difficult but solutions-driven conversations about one of the most pressing issues currently facing sport in this country.

Safe sport has been a key area of focus for all of us in the Canadian sport system this year. At last year’s Session, the COC announced a $10 million investment toward safe sport. A portion of that investment was earmarked to support the transition of all NSOs and MSOs to Abuse Free Sport. Since then, we have been working tirelessly with our sport partners to ensure those funds are invested wisely and effectively. A key element of the COC’s work has been supporting the establishment and early development of the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC). I was thrilled that OSIC now has more than 80 signatories, and some provinces and territories are considering signing up. I can’t stress enough how important a step this is. The system has been loud and clear that having athletes at all levels with access to an independent mechanism to flag abuse and harassment is absolutely crucial to making sport safe and accessible for all. The balance of our $10M safe sport investment will be directed to the highest impact needs, and we’re working with the whole community to determine what those gaps are and to see how we can harmonize existing work. 

It was a powerful workshop that once again demonstrated to me that our system is capable of change. Not one person in the room was opposed to a more powerful athlete voice or a strong and independent safe sport mechanism and everyone was looking for solutions. Key outcomes included the need to galvanize the system around better training, increased transparency, education options for athletes and, crucially, parents. It is clear that the OSIC is an important element, maybe even the foundation of a safe and inclusive system, similar to the way the Canadian Centre forEthics in Sport is for anti-doping. But it is also clear that Canada needs a broad educational campaign that empowers parents and all participants to ask the right questions and have a place to turn to for support. 

The Session and the workshops left me thoughtful and energized. With more than 200 athletes and sport system leaders in the room it was impossible not to be inspired. And as we look to the next 16 months or so, there is even more reason to be excited: we have the ANOC World Beach Games Bali 2023 this summer, the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games this fall, the Gangwon 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games in January and the Paris 2024 Olympic Games beginning in July 2024. 

With all that, it’s not surprising that there was unanimous agreement that the system has to be better at talking about what it does well. As one of our guest speakers said, the system needs to demonstrate to Canadians the power of sport because sport, when done right, is an incredible force for good. It builds communities; it builds leaders; it’s good for the economy; it’s good for the physical and mental health of everyone involved, and so much more. 

In fact, the weekend ended with a request for a manifesto, something to rally around that demonstrates everyone’s absolute commitment to supporting survivors of abuse in sport, building the safe sport structures necessary to prevent future abuse, and spreading the benefits of sport to as many Canadians as possible. There is a lot of hard work to do, everyone agrees with that, but it is getting better, and I am proud that on the weekend the system put participant well-being at the centre. That may not be a manifesto, but it’s certainly the way forward. 

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