Can Alex Baumann Make a Difference in Canadian Sport?

It will be interesting to see if he can effect any change. Wonder what they are paying him to lure him back to Canada?

Swimming star Alex Baumann to run Road to Excellence Olympic program

19:12:02 EDT Sep 27, 2006
Canadian Press: LORI EWING

TORONTO (CP) - Alex Baumann knows a little something about aiming high, and achieving lofty goals.

That’s a good thing, because Canada’s swim hero faces maybe the stiffest test of his sports career. The Olympic gold medallist is returning home from over a decade spent in Australia to serve as executive director of the Road To Excellence program, which aims to put Canadians on the podium at the Summer Olympics.

“There’s no doubt I’m under pressure,” Baumann said at a news conference Wednesday at the University of Toronto. “I don’t have any illusions. I think it will be a difficult job and it will take time to implement a sustainable system that will produce long-term results.”

The program introduced last June is the summer equivalent of Own The Podium, which was developed after Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Olympics, its aim being a No. 1 finish for Canada in the medal standings in 2010. Own The Podium already showed results at the Turin Olympics, where Canada finished third in the medals.

The goals of the Road to Excellence are more modest - a top-16 placing for Canada at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and a top-12 placing at the 2012 Games in London, and a top-five finish in both the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics. Canada was a disappointing 19th at the 2004 Athens Olympics with 12 medals.

The key to the program’s success was leadership, said Roger Jackson, CEO of Own The Podium 2010 and author of the Road to Excellence business plan. Baumann, a hero in the pool and polished and well-spoken out of it, was the perfect fit.

“There are a couple of images. One is an absolutely world-class athlete coming back to Canada and being a representative of what new Canadian sport is about,” said Jackson. "He’s young, he’s highly experienced, and that image will invigorate sport and people who are really wanting a better future.

“The other image is of an absolutely world-class experienced technocrat, who has strong leadership capabilities.”

Baumann, whose term begins in January, once scoffed at the notion of returning to Canada. Looking tanned and fit and with a distinct Aussie accent, Baumann said what finally brought him home was an obvious attitude adjustment in Canada’s sport system.

“In the last couple of years I’ve seen tremendous momentum, a change in culture, there’s a change in leadership, people are willing to make hard decisions and I think that made my decision a lot easier,” said Baumann.

He will be based in Ottawa and has purchased a house there with his wife Tracy. Their two kids, Ashton, 13 and Tabitha, 11, have only seen snow once.

Baumann, 42, won gold in the 200-and 400-metre individual medley events at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics - both in world-record time. He was named Canada’s male athlete of the year by The Canadian Press that year, and made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Baumann moved to Australia shortly after retiring from swimming and most recently was the executive director for the Queensland Academy of Sport where he oversaw some 650 athletes in 21 sports.

“People have been saying for a long time, why can’t we get our best people to stay in this country and work here?” said Chris Rudge, the COC’s chief executive officer.

“(Baumann) brings to Canada an almost mythical cache from his accomplishments in the past and what he’s done down in Australia. And we all know we like to see a native son come home and re-embrace Canada and bring that leadership back to Canada.”

While the program now has its man, it still needs more money. Rudge pledged a $5 million contribution from the COC to existing funding on Wednesday.

“It’s a very good start, but the job’s not done,” said Baumann.

The program calls for an additional $58.8 million from the federal government and corporate sector, and an additional $29.6 million from the provinces.

Baumann is banking on the excitement created from the Vancouver Olympics.

“When Australia got awarded the Olympics in 1993 for the 2000 games, it united everybody,” said Baumann. "I’m hoping the (2010) Winter Games will unite the stakeholders for the summer sports as well.

“It will be a challenge for us, there’s no doubt, because you don’t have this end event that you can really focus on. But I think it can be done and I think it’s already started now.”

Baumann won’t hesitate to be tough to achieve his goals. The program calls for a streamlined approach to summer sports - athletes and sports with the best chance at achieving Olympic success will receive the majority of support. Canoe/kayak, diving, and rowing top the list of targeted sports, followed by track and field, cycling, women’s soccer, women’s softball and women’s water polo.

“There’s no egalitarianism in high-performance sports,” Baumann said bluntly.

Road To Excellence will provide funding for things like coaching, travel to competition and training, and sports science.

But Baumann said his message to athletes will be: there’s no substitute for hard work.

“I think those support services like sports medicine or biomechanics can give you an edge, but you have to remember you have to put in hard work,” said the former swimmer. “That’s the key thing I would tell athletes. 'We’re going to be here to help you as much as possible, but you’re going to have to do it yourself, you’re going to have to stand up on that podium or on that block for your event.”’