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Behind Quebec success at the Canada Winter Games: sports schools, pro coaches

Friday, Feb 25, 2011 12:00 pm | Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX - If Canadian amateur sport wishes to keep thriving in Olympic winter sports it has a built-in model to emulate Quebec.

The province has emerged as the dominant force at the Canada Winter Games, topping the medal standings by notable margins for the past four games.

The Games in Halifax the past two weeks have followed the same pattern, with a contingent of 251 Quebec athletes winning 113 medals by midday on Friday more than Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan combined at that point in sports ranging from badminton to judo to speedskating.

So what is the mix of ingredients that consistently develops Quebec athletes for podium performance?

Angela Schneider, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario's faculty of health sciences in London, points to the province's 28 publicly financed sports schools and a professional coaching system.

In addition, the legacy of Gaetan Boucher and his two gold speedskating medals at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics created a skating legacy in the province. The province won about 35 of its medals in speedskating, regularly sweeping the podium.

"Their infrastructure is stronger and the development base is stronger and if you look at the results they're in the speedskating area," said Schneider, a former Olympic silver medallist in rowing.

Some of the skaters attend publicly funded sport schools where athletes are expected to train a minimum of 15 hours a week.

Schneider says Ontario and other Canadian provinces should consider adopting a similar model. "Now is the time to make the argument to bring these (sport schools) in to Ontario as well."

Ontario, with about four million more people, was second in medals with 84 by midday on Friday.

Ken Bagnell, the head of the Halifax-based Canada Sport Centre Atlantic, said Quebec has a system the four Atlantic provinces can learn from.

"I think there's a unique culture in Quebec that embraces sport at the high-performance level. ... When they go into something they go into with the full intent of being the best at it," he said in an interview.

"If the other provinces want to play on a equal playing field there's fundamental changes they'll have to make."

The sport school system is producing similar results when schools are set up elsewhere in the country.

Graduates or current students of the National Sport School in Calgary had produced 23 medallists by Thursday, said principal Cam Hodgson. Students at the school pay annual fees of $4,000.

"The whole way that Quebec supports its amateur athletes allows for kids to have different training times where they aren't competing with the general public for access to facilities," he said.

The sport schools in Quebec also contribute to coaching, said John Bales, chief executive of the Coaching Association of Canada.

While some provinces continue to rely on volunteers, Quebec has melded the sports schools with local sports clubs, allowing full-time jobs for coaches.

"There's been a significant increase in the number of coaches employed in the system because of the sports (schools) program," Bales said in an interview.

"Sport (schools) has enabled clubs and centres to employ coaches and train the athletes at a far higher level. ... There are similar programs in other provinces but it's not as well developed."

Meanwhile, funding by Quebec compares with most other large provinces.

Quebec's Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sport said in an email it provided $4.2 million to support its sports federations, and $7.2 million for high-performance sports programs, with an additional $300,000 to prepare for the Canada Winter Games.

A spokeswoman for Ontario's Ministry of Health Promotion and Sport said the province provides $7.7 million in "direct funding to provincial sport and multi-sport organizations."Ontario is also continuing a $10-million program that provides support to high-performance athletes and provided $200,000 to Team Ontario for the Canada Games.

Alberta provides its federations with almost $7 million, plus $975,000 over three years for team training and selection for the Canada Winter Games and $390,000 for operational funding.

Martin Cleroult, the chef de mission of Quebec, also cites the sport school system and a system that's in place to reward coaches who succeed.

"Among other things there is the Team Quebec program, which subsidizes high-performance athletes in the province ... and it's the same thing for coaches," he said.

"There's a subsidy of $20,000 for each coach, for each year for coaches who have athletes identified as elite."

Many of Quebec's Canada Winter Games contingent work on a permanent basis as full-time coaches with provincial teams, he added.

Cleroult described the Quebec model as a mixture of European and North American influences, with some athletes thriving in the sport schools systems and others through private clubs.

"There's a European influence but there's also an American influence," he said.

Despite the success, Cleroult said he seldom encounters requests for tours or visits from other Canadian jurisdictions.

"We tend to live a bit in our own worlds," he said.


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