Use double quotes to find documents that include the exact phrase: "aerodynamic AND testing"

The use of nicotine by athletes has not been thoroughly examined. A recent study found that 1 in 5 athletes, from a range of 90 different sports, tested positive for nicotine in-competition. Positivity rates were lower in endurance sports than power-based ones, and lower in individual sports than team sports. These findings suggest that WADA could further investigate nicotine use within elite athletes.

You’d be hard pressed to visit a large Canadian city these days and not see a billboard for sports gambling. Maybe you’ve noticed a similar trend while watching TV, of athletes and celebrities telling us not only which sports books to use, but how easy it is to bet on games across different sports and leagues. If it seems like these ads popped up overnight, they kind of did!

It’s been less than 2 years since Bill C-218, an Act to amend the Criminal Code (regarding sports betting) became law, paving the way for provincial and territorial governments to regulate single-event sport betting, and providing consumer protections and increased economic opportunities.

Betting operators were up and running quickly, and the numbers tell us that Canadians have enthusiastically taken to this new way of gambling on sport. iGamingOntario reported that total wagers in Q4 of 2022 were $13.9 billion, which brought the total wagers for the year to $35.5 billion and $1.4 billion total gaming revenue (dollar amounts represent a combination of sports betting and casino play). During the same timeframe, just over 1 million player accounts were active, and 1.65 million accounts were active over the course of the year. For reference, Ontario’s population is just shy of 15 million.

For betting operators and gaming websites, this is all good news, over a million Ontarians are placing bets and revenue is high. But with more betting comes the increased likelihood of competition manipulation and other threats to sport integrity. Several sport integrity services are in the business of monitoring suspicious activity around online betting, watching for “suspicious matches.” Why is this important? Because a “suspicious match” indicates that a betting irregularity was detected and there’s potential that the match, or an element of it, was manipulated. In plain language, it means that someone involved with a game, match, or race did something contrary to the rules to affect its outcome. That someone could be an athlete, support personnel or an official. 

In 2022, Sportradar Integrity Services saw a huge jump in suspicious matches. According to their annual review of data gathered by their Universal Fraud Detection System, Betting Corruption and Match-Fixing in 2022, they detected a 34% increase in suspicious matches from 2021. In total, 1,212 suspicious matches were detected in 92 countries on five continents, and across 12 sports.

On home soil

The bulk of these suspicious matches were detected in Europe, Asia and South America, but Canada is not immune to competition manipulation. We have a cautionary tale of our own. In 2016, an investigation found that over 40% of Canadian Soccer League (CSL) matches had been manipulated. The semi-pro players were receiving nominal compensation to supplement their day jobs and, as a result, they were targeted to fix games that were broadcast in Asia and were bet on primarily in unregulated Asian betting markets.

According to Interpol, over $100 million was bet on CSL matches over a 3-year period and every club in the league was involved. Canada Soccer (formerly the Canadian Soccer Association) cut ties with the league.

No league, match, or competition is too small for match fixers. In fact, small-scale competitions, contested by poorly compensated athletes, are the most susceptible to competition manipulation.

Pilot project and competition manipulation policy template

When considering these developments (the legislative change, billions in revenue, and the reports on the suspicious matches) as a complete package, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) sees competition manipulation as a very real threat to the integrity of sport and athlete safety. If sports fans start to think the results of games have been manipulated and are predetermined, they’ll lose faith and eventually tune out. If athletes are accepting gifts and favours in exchange for throwing a match or sharing information about their team, they risk their personal safety and retribution from match fixers if things don’t go as planned. Neither of these outcomes are good for athletes or sport at large.   

To address another major threat to sport integrity, the CCES administers the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP), a national program to detect and deter doping that incorporates international best practices, including an extensive education program. With this model in mind, the CCES partnered with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) on a pilot project to combat competition manipulation that features a template policy for national sport organizations (NSOs). To date, five participating NSOs have implemented a customized Competition Manipulation Policy that is consistent with the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of the Manipulation of Competitions (IOC Code).

To support the policy, the CCES rolled out an e-learning course called Understanding Competition Manipulation that explains the basics, including who’s involved, what’s at risk, and how to recognize if you’ve been targeted for a manipulation scheme. This course is available to anyone and has been completed more than 20,000 times!

Reporting competition manipulation

A policy without a method for reporting wrongdoing or enforcement has little value, so every organization in the pilot project must provide a mechanism for athletes and members to report competition manipulation. In early 2023, the CCES Integrity Hotline launched to provide a means for secure and confidential reporting of both doping and competition manipulation, which NSOs in the pilot project were invited to use. The hotline is managed by the CCES’s intelligence team, who can use reports to start investigations when warranted.

While new to the competition manipulation game, the hotline (formerly known as Report Doping) is a proven tool in the fight against doping. In fiscal 2022, it received 91 tips, 5 of which led to anti-doping rule violations, and there’s already been reporting activity on the competition manipulation side as well.

What comes next?

From a global perspective, Canada is playing catch-up on this issue. The CCES is focused on learning new approaches and best practices from government organizations, international sport federations, and sport integrity experts who are actively addressing competition manipulation.

Representatives from many of these organizations and more will be at the 2023 Symposium on Competition Manipulation and Gambling in Sport, May 30-31 in Toronto, Ontario. The CCES and McLaren Global Sport Solutions, with support from the COC, are co-hosting the symposium. The goal of the event is to develop a common way forward that will protect sport and benefit the gaming industry, and to develop a comprehensive national program for all national and multi-sport organizations.

Follow @EthicsinSPORT in sport for more information.

Earning a roster position as a nationally carded athlete is no easy task (“carding” refers to financial assistance from Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program). Athletes spend years working on their craft to represent Canada on the international stage. The length of time spent in the role as a national athlete varies across sports and between athletes, however, 1 commonality is every athlete’s inevitable retirement from sport. For some, the exit from sport is voluntary, while others may retire involuntarily due to roster deselection, injury, or life circumstances.  

Athlete retirement has been associated with numerous psychological, social, physiological and emotional consequences. Recent research suggests that high performance athletes should proactively prepare for life after sport by engaging in sport-life balance. Athletes can work towards this by investing in areas of their life outside of sport such as education and family, as well as financial, social and professional development. Engaging in practices that promote sport-life balance does not imply an athlete should decrease their focus or commitment towards their pursuit of sport excellence. Rather, the concept of balance positions the athlete to have higher life satisfaction while perceiving positive sport experiences as they train for excellence (Alfermann et coll., 2004; Lavallee 2019).

For Canadian high performance athletes, Game Plan offers free support for carded athletes to foster an improved sport-life balance, optimize sport performance and plan for their post-sport career. Available to active and retired athletes, Game Plan’s resources include education, career, community, skill development and health support. Despite the curation of world-class retirement support, Game Plan’s resources are underutilized. The reason for this remains unclear.  

After over a decade of servicing Canadian athletes, researchers examined Game Plan’s usage data from 2019-2021 to garner an understanding of how active and retired athletes in national sport organizations (NSOs) use Game Plan’s resources. The data outlined Game Plan’s usage rate from the following services domains: career, education, health, education, networking, skill development and other. All users were listed as unidentifiable randomized codes that solely indicated their NSO affiliation, and the year and frequency in which specific resources were accessed.

This blog provides insight into how Game Plan’s resources are being utilized by athletes across the sport system and identify barriers athletes face in accessing Game Plan’s support for their proactive and reactive retirement needs.

Internal barriers and resource usage

A recent article examined Canadian athletes’ ability to plan and prepare for their retirement (Brassard et coll., 2022). The authors identified 3 environmental styles fostered by coaches, support staff, and high-performance directors that influence an athletes’ ability to plan and prepare for retirement:

Within these styles, athletes experience internal barriers such as a lack of support for activities outside of sport (such as academics, work, family) from coaches, and too few opportunities provided by NSOs to prepare for career transitions.

Beyond these internal barriers, Game Plan usage discrepancies between mainstream and Para athletes indicate there may be other contributing factors. Based on the usage data from 2019 to 2021, able-bodied athletes are accessing Game Plan resources more than Para athletes. Factors like retirement age (for example, mainstream athletes often retire earlier than Para athletes), athletic identity around retirement (for example, self-esteem scores have been reported as lower in Para athletes who retired involuntarily when compared to those who retired voluntarily), and narratives around the topic of retirement (Guerrero & Martin, 2018; Marin-Urquiza et coll., 2018) may be some of these contributing factors. 

How funding influences access

NSOs are non-profit organizations that rely on various forms of funding to support sport advancement in Canada. Most NSOs rely on the Government of Canada, membership fees, and other organizations to provide financial support, such as the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee. In addition, some organizations receive targeted high performance funding from the Government of Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee, and the Canadian Paralympic Committee based on recommendations from Own the Podium to advance the performance potential of athletes through funding staff, coaches, access to competitions, organizational facilities, and high performance organizations. Own the Podium assesses the performance potential of each sport organization, recommending the appropriate amount of funding.

Predictably, there are funding disparities across sport organizations due to different performance potential measurements. However, there appears to be a trickledown effect regarding how funding influences athletes’ access to Game Plan resources. For example, the Game Plan usage data showed high athlete usage from athletes in more highly funded sport organizations compared to athletes in lower funded organizations.

Regardless of sport organization funding, all carded athletes have access to free Game Plan support. However, this latter group of athletes appears to be missing out on opportunities to proactively and reactively receive support to prepare for and adapt to life after sport.  

One leads to another

Among the thousands of athletes who utilized Game Plan’s support, the vast majority accessed Game Plan’s resources on multiple occasions, and at times, for various forms of support, including health, education, community, career or skill development. This widespread repeat usage emphasizes the importance of initiating that first meeting with a Game Plan advisor.  

In order for an athlete to engage in proactive preparation for retirement, communication on the why, where, and how of a positive sport-life balance in transitioning from sport becomes pivotal.

As the first meeting with a Game Plan advisor is designed towards addressing those questions, NSOs can do a great deal for their athletes by facilitating that initial engagement. As such, organizations can do the following to support an athlete in getting to that initial meeting:  

  1. Familiarization
  1. Lean on the experts
  1. Invest in sustainability:
Fig 1: Considerations and strategies for sport organizations seeking to improve athlete engagement in Game Plan resources


It can be incredibly difficult to predict the length of time an athlete will spend training and competing in their sport, the injuries and triumphs they may endure, the levels of success they will achieve, or the exact moment and reason that will lead them to retire. Sport organizations in Canada have made vast improvements to provide athletes with holistic forms of support that address athletes’ technical and tactical performance, as well as their strength, conditioning, mental, nutritional and physical performance.

Progress is needed to minimize barriers athletes experience to accessing proactive and reactive retirement support. With the abundance of athlete retirement research studies that  highlight the mental, emotional, social, professional and physical challenges athletes face due to their lack of retirement preparation, change in how sport organizations perceive, promote, and prioritize retirement is necessary.  

Learn more about Game Plan  

Everyone knows to warm up before competing, but have you heard of “priming” beforehand? Priming is a round of non-tiring exercise that is done the day before or morning of a competition. Research shows priming may improve performance, as well as reduce athlete pre-competition stress.


Every day, athletes are faced with small decisions that have potential to impact their performance, recovery and health. Often these decisions relate to things that may seem comparatively inconsequential to the average person, and can be as simple as what foods to eat, or what activities to avoid or participate in. When it comes to cannabis use, things are no different.

In October of 2018, recreational cannabis use became legal across all of Canada for individuals who are 19 years and older. Data gathered from the years following the legalization of recreational cannabis use suggest that one quarter of all Canadian adults, and nearly half of all Canadians aged 20-24, have used cannabis in the past year (Government of Canada, 2021). Clearly, cannabis use in Canada is widespread amongst the general population. But what should athletes be considering when it comes to using or avoiding cannabis?

In this article I will provide a research-informed exploration of the current state of cannabis use in relation to sport in Canada and provide advice for how sport organizations should approach the topic of cannabis with athletes.

Contextualizing cannabis

To start off, it’s important to understand what cannabis is. The term “cannabis” refers to a group of plant species containing unique molecules called “phytocannabinoids,” or more generally, “cannabinoids.” There are hundreds of different cannabinoid molecules, however, the 2 that most people will be familiar with are called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the primary cannabinoid responsible for causing the psychological effects of cannabis that many users are seeking. In other words, THC is responsible for the “high” that many people associate with cannabis use. CBD on the other hand, is generally not thought to cause psychological effects, since it interacts with chemical receptors in the body’s tissues in a different way than THC (Ahston, 2001). While many people tend to focus on the way each of these cannabinoids affect our brain, it’s important to understand that both may have effects on other tissues in our bodies. This is just one of the reasons that athletes should approach cannabis use cautiously.

While any adult in Canada older than 19 can legally use cannabis that contains THC or CBD recreationally, the picture is more complicated for athletes. Firstly, many sport organizations and regulatory bodies list cannabinoids as banned substances in some shape or form. For example, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) bans the use of cannabinoids during the competition phases of the season (notably, CBD is exempt) (World Anti-Doping Agency, 2022). This is also relevant to Canadian athletes participating in U-SPORTS competitions, as these regulations are also enforced by U-SPORTS and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, n.d.). Secondly, because cannabis has been illegal for a long time, research on the safety of cannabis use has been challenging to conduct in the general population (Haney, 2020) with even less work having been done with athletes (Burr et coll, 2021). Therefore, it is extremely important for athletes to understand that very little research exists surrounding many of the applications of cannabis in sport. For some athletes, each of these facts may be enough to deter from cannabis use, however, research suggests many athletes still use cannabis recreationally (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2018; Peretti-Watel et coll, 2003), or even for performance enhancement (Lorente et coll, 2005).

Exploring reasons athletes use cannabis

Like many other people, athletes report using cannabis for reasons completely unrelated to sport, including recreational use. In 2018, a study conducted by the NCAA on its own student athletes reported that as many as 25% of athletes use cannabis recreationally (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2018). In further support of this study, a systematic review of peer-reviewed literature identified similar lifetime and past-year prevalence of cannabis use in athletic populations from countries other than the USA (Docter et coll, 2020).

In Canada, the practice of recreational cannabis use is perfectly legal, assuming the athlete is 19 years or older, and the nature of use does not contradict substance use policies of sporting body regulating their respective sport. Nevertheless, recreational cannabis use, even outside of the competition phase of a season may still present significant risks to athletes. Many cannabinoids can be detected for up to days after the time of use and well after any effects have subsided, in biological samples (Huestis et coll, 1995). Therefore, it is entirely possible that cannabis use outside of, but in near proximity to competition, could trigger a violation. In an effort to avoid these situations, WADA tests numerous cannabinoids as “threshold substances” meaning that a certain level of cannabinoid has to be present in a sample, making it a little more lenient than a zero-tolerance style policy. However, despite the use of thresholds, cannabis related anti-doping violations are not uncommon in Canadian athletics (Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, n.d.).

Outside of recreational use, there is a growing body of evidence that some athletes use cannabis with the intention of improving performance. A survey of ultra-marathon runners showed that cannabinoids are one of the most widely utilized performance enhancing substances in the sport (Campian et coll, 2018). The prevailing thought for how cannabis may improve performance in this sport is that some of the reported effects of THC, such as reduced anxiety, nausea, and pain, may allow athletes to mitigate exercise related anxiety, pain, or exertion, and subsequently perform better.

To date, there is very little research studying cannabis use before exercise. The first studies found that patients with cardiovascular disease reached exhaustion sooner during an exercise test after using cannabis (Aronow & Cassidy, 1974, 1975) Studies in healthy individuals show similar but slightly different results. The first study using healthy participants showed that at a given heart rate, participants were not able to work as hard following cannabis use (Steadward & Singh, 1975). Based on this finding, authors concluded that maximal exercise performance would be reduced. A later study published on the topic that actually did examine maximal exercise after cannabis use showed that participants were unable to exercise for as long during an exercise test of increasing difficulty, providing direct evidence that cannabis did indeed negatively impact maximal exercise performance in healthy individuals (Renaud & Cormier, 1986).

While these studies provide some evidence that cannabis containing THC reduces exercise performance, there are a few caveats that should be considered. The primary caveat to all these studies is that none of these studies utilized exercise tests which mimic real-life athletic competitions, nor do they match the demands of the sports in which athletes most report use of cannabis for athletic performance enhancement. So, to fully understand how cannabis impacts performance, studies should aim to use more relevant exercise tests, particularly ones that mimic the demands of the sports from which athletes report cannabis use.

Additionally, the recreational cannabis available to athletes in today’s consumer market is much different from the cannabis available at the time of these early studies. Today, cannabis users have many more options for how they use cannabis. Although many people think of cannabis as something that is smoked or inhaled, modern day consumers can also eat or drink cannabis products. Recently, a study conducted at Colorado State University looked at the effects of edible cannabis products on numerous different cycling performance tests. Their results differ from the studies conducted 40-50 years ago, showing that cannabis had no effect on performance in the tests they used (Ewell et coll, 2022), nor did they affect the way the cardiovascular system responded to exercise. While all these studies provide valuable insight into how cannabis impacts performance, it should be acknowledged how many questions remain unanswered. For example, does the inhalation method matter? What if cannabis is used further out from when exercise begins? How about if we alter the cannabinoid composition within cannabis?

Each of these questions highlight the fact that right now, there is much more that is not known than is known about how cannabis impacts performance. While there is evidence that cannabis either negatively impacts, or does not impact performance, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that it has any benefits. Furthermore, very little research has systematically evaluated whether cannabis use prior to exercise threatens athlete safety or introduces any additional risk to health. This alone should be a good enough reason for athletes to avoid cannabis use before exercise. Given this, and the fact that cannabis use is banned in competition for many sports, athletes should avoid cannabis use with exercise. Even if cannabis could provide some benefits that outweigh these risks, there is very little existing evidence to suggest that cannabis used in conjunction with exercise should provide any kind of benefit. Athletes, coaches, and sporting bodies should keep a keen eye out for new research in this area that will hopefully emerge in coming years, and further inform our knowledge on how cannabis use impacts performance.

What the research says about CBD and exercise

While the use of whole cannabis within sport is relatively common, many will be aware that the use of CBD in sport is even more popular. In fact, informed choices surrounding CBD are arguably even more important to make, given that CBD is not a banned substance by WADA, and consequently, many sporting bodies. CBD has become an increasingly popular supplement for recovery and performance due to a range of claims including anti-inflammation, antioxidant properties, sleep promotion and pain relief (Gamelin et coll, 2020; Rojas-Valverde, 2021). The prevailing thought is that many of these effects would be beneficial for recovery from intense exercise or activities that are physically demanding on our bodies’ tissues.

While this thought may appear intuitive at the surface, there are many caveats regarding what research exists to support use of CBD by athletes, and whether these effects would be beneficial for athletes. Let’s first address arguably the most prominent claim for CBD, which is that its anti-inflammatory properties are beneficial for recovery. A popular method of testing how well something aids recovery in a research lab is by testing how well athletic performance can be preserved by a given intervention, following some sort of demanding exercise that results in some degree of muscle damage. In other words, studies will often have participants complete an exercise bout, and then measure either tissue damage, or performance in a subsequent bout with and without the intervention (in this case, CBD).

To date, there have been 3 studies (Cochrane-Snyman et coll, 2021; Crossland et coll, 2022; Isenmann et coll, 2021) with human participants which examine whether CBD is effective in mitigating muscle damage and performance decrements associated with resistance exercise. These studies have shown mixed but largely disappointing results. One of these studies showed that CBD can reduce blood markers of inflammation and muscle damage following damaging exercise, and that CBD may have allowed participants to recover back-squat performance 72 hours post-exercise (Isenmann et coll, 2021). However, the 2 other studies examining how CBD might affect muscle damage and fatigue showed that CBD performed no different than placebo, in any measure, performance- or inflammation-related (Cochrane-Snyman et coll, 2021; Crossland et coll, 2022).

Therefore, these studies provide little evidence, if any, suggesting that any potential anti-inflammatory effects of CBD are beneficial for recovery. It’s also important to note that the use of any anti-inflammatory drugs following training may not have intended effects, as studies have shown that inflammation may be important for adapting to training, and these types of products may blunt this response (Owens et coll, 2019). When it comes to pain mitigation following exercise, there is even less research. While there are no experimental laboratory studies assessing whether CBD alters the pain associated with exercise, a survey of rugby athletes demonstrated that although as many as 80% of athletes who used CBD did so with the intent of improving recovery or mitigating pain, only 14% perceived any benefit (Kasper et coll, 2020).

Research on the ability of CBD to improve sleep in athletes is about as equally scarce. Most of the research to date examining the effects of CBD on sleep have used clinical populations rather than athletes, with only one study reporting that CBD improved self-reported sleep onset and perceived quality (Carlini & Cunha, 1981). Another study in healthy participants showed no effects on subjective sleep quality, or objective measures of sleep quality following CBD use (Linares et coll, 2018).

While CBD has mainly been studied as a recovery aid for athletes, there is also potential that some of its purported effects related to benefitting pain and anxiety could create some utility for performance enhancement. To date, only one study has examined the acute effects of CBD on exercise performance, and the body’s response to exercise (Sahinovic et coll, 2022). A research group out of the University of Sydney asked participants to run both at a steady pace and at increasing speeds up to exhaustion after consuming CBD orally. The results of this study showed that despite small differences in the maximal amount of oxygen consumed and feelings of pleasure during exercise after CBD intake, time to exhaustion was not affected, suggesting that CBD does little to alter performance, and likely has only minor effects on the physiological and psychological responses to exercise.

When turning to the research, it doesn’t take long to realize that many of the claims tied to CBD use are largely unproven, and much work needs to be done before athletes should feel like using CBD is unequivocally a good idea. At the moment little evidence exists to suggest that CBD has any benefit for athletes at all, either when it comes to recovery, or performance. In addition to the lack of physiological benefits, CBD may possess its own anti-doping risks. Although CBD is not generally a banned substance, CBD products may actually contain THC, a banned substance. A growing body of research has identified that many cannabis products, including CBD products, are not accurately labelled (Johnson et coll, 2022; Vandrey et coll, 2015). Another analysis of 23 hemp products (a form of cannabis many CBD products are made from) showed that many of them contained a wide range of cannabinoids, with approximately 30% of them containing enough cannabinoids to cause an anti-doping rule violation if samples would have been taken within 8 hours of use (Mareck et coll, 2022).

Final thoughts

For athletes, coaches, and sporting bodies, the landscape of how to approach cannabis use in sport in 2023 remains uncertain. Since legalization of recreational use in Canada, athletes in the country have never had greater access to a range of products marketed for a vast array of claims that may seem attractive. That said, there remains significant gaps in the research that must be filled before cannabis or derivative cannabinoid products can be confidently recommended to any athlete seeking benefits from their use. Given the risks associated with product contamination, and potential unknowns about product safety, there is little reason to suggest that at the moment, any possible benefits of cannabinoid use in sport are outweighed by the current risks.

Tomorrow is Earth Day and the sport sector has a role in protecting our environment and embracing sustainability. The Canadian Olympic Committee has compiled a list of “Team Canada Climate Action Resources” that showcases how Team Canada is doing its part to protect the planet.

Researchers suggest that the best way to promote fair sport is to move away from a solely doping-centric focus towards promoting high levels of integrity. In this 2022 article, researchers question the usefulness of the term “clean sport,” which is theorized differently as “drug-free sport” versus “cheating-free” sport.

According to 4-time Olympian and mental health advocate Clara Hughes, “[mental health] resources need to be more readily available and clearly laid out as to what they are, where they are and how to access them.” To address this gap, the Mental Health Strategy for High Performance Sport in Canada aims to equip sport participants, leaders and stakeholders with the mental health knowledge, skills and support to thrive throughout their career and beyond.

You don’t necessarily need a sport-specific mental health strategy or specialized staff to make an impact in the mental health space. Consistently and frequently communicating to athletes, coaches and support staff what mental health supports are available at no cost or subsidized cost, such as Game Plan or Lifeworks, is an easy and cheap place for all national sport organizations to start.


At the Canada Summer Games in Niagara for up-and-coming athletes in August, the power of sport to transform lives was on full display with stories that showcased the pure joy, excitement and fun sport can offer. Teenage wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak became Nunavut’s first ever gold medallist in the games and an emotional video clip went viral as he talked about dedicating his victory to his deceased brother and explained how sport had saved his life.

That example of how sport can transform lives is a far cry from the headlines of the past year, ones that have shown a darker side to sport. Dozens of athletes in various sports spoke out in 2022 about maltreatment in a year of sport activism like no other. Some described a toxic environment in sport and demanded immediate change.

Before we hear more about some of the biggest concerns from athletes, it’s important to add some context. High performance sport by its very nature is not for everyone and is not always the healthiest endeavour.

Allison Forsyth is a two time Olympian and was one of the top skiers in the world for close to a decade: “I go to my orthopedic surgeon today and he’s like, ‘Good news, you’re 43 but your knees are like 72 now.’ We push our bodies to such an extreme place at a young age so I’m worse off as a 43 year old than if I just sat around and did nothing my whole life.”

Natalie Durand-Bush is a sports psychology professor, scientist and practitioner at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics. She’s also the Executive Director for the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport. When asked if high performance sport is healthy, she says, “There are definitely some drawbacks because you’re so hyper focused on this one particular thing in which you are so invested. You work above and beyond what normal people would do to achieve that.” She says this is the same for other high performance domains like medicine, business and the performing arts.

Durand-Bush says that despite potential drawbacks, sport offers many benefits. It can teach important life lessons about winning and losing and about being part of a team. Participants also develop friendships that extend long after they leave sport. Durand-Bush says it’s become abundantly clear that we need to measure success in sport in new ways and by much more than just medals. For instance, success may mean considering athletes as people first, prioritizing their mental and physical wellness, retaining athletes, coaches and staff, and providing positive and rewarding experiences.

Athletes feel it’s podium or bust

In the past year, many athletes shared horrific stories of maltreatment and abuse going back years. Many believe one of the root causes for the crisis is that the high performance sport system has been too narrowly focused on medals as the marker of success, sometimes allowing toxic behaviour to go unchecked. Olympic gymnastics gold medallist Kyle Shewfelt told the National Post that needs to change. “I think high performance sport has to look in the mirror and ask itself the question ‘What is this worth?’” He added, “There is a way to create champions and high performing athletes in a very positive environment where the athletes do have a lot of independence, they do have a lot of agency and we don’t use fear and manipulation, those tactics, in order to get the athletes to work hard and be great.”

Alison Forsyth says sometimes athletes are made to feel like commodities. Going into the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, Forsyth was ranked third in the world and carried the weight of the team on her shoulders at her first Olympics. “When I went to those games, I was told I was not going to the opening ceremonies because I was a medal hopeful. The board sat me down and said, ‘you better get a medal or we’re not going to get any funding.’” She adds, “that’s a lot for someone to take on. You already feel the pressure of your whole country, your family and yourself. Then to feel you have the pressure of other people’s careers in your hands is too much.”

Forsyth ended up finishing 7th in the giant slalom in Salt Lake City after suffering a panic attack and not being able to sleep the night before her race because of that pressure. It’s something she’s carried with her ever since. “If you ask how I feel even now about my Olympic performance, I’m devastated with my 7th place finish. Devastated because I was ranked third in the world and wanted to win. Every athlete knows it’s podium or bust.”  

Many athletes have such a negative experience in high performance sport that when they retire, they don’t want anything to do with it. Durand-Bush says this is heartbreaking: “Some have mentioned feeling like a number, like they are commodities to produce medals for the country.  But like anyone else, these athletes deserve to be treated as humans.” That’s why Durand-Bush believes there is a need to return to a more human-centred approach to high performance sport.

How to create a system where we put humans first

It all starts with having to redefine success in sport. Forsyth says throughout her career she was unhappy more days than she was happy. She says, “by relieving some of that pressure and supporting athletes, they will still win. I actually think they will win more.” Forsyth now consults for National Sport Organizations, including Rowing Canada, where she is trying to rebuild a safe sport culture. Rowing Canada recently conducted a review which found that 50 percent of its high performance participants over the past decade described their experience as negative.  More than 85 percent of people surveyed reported that they witnessed, experienced or heard maltreatment.

Forsyth advocates for humanizing the sport experience and sport organizations to create mutual respect for everybody, from the sport administrators, to coaches, to athletes. In her mind, that means including athletes in every step of the process, treating them as professionals and including them as members of boards. In her work with Rowing Canada, she has encouraged them to adopt “fun” as one of their core values and key pillars. This advice came from her experience training for months on end with few breaks and not a lot of fun: “taking a little breather from that crazy micro-environment of high performance sport, will actually elevate the overall results.”

Perception is reality

One of the organizations often criticized by athletes, coaches and administrators for tying funding to high performance is Own the Podium (OTP). Some are under the impression that funding for high performance athletes is tied solely to performance, fueling a “podiums over people” mentality.

The Chief Executive Officer of OTP, Anne Merklinger, acknowledges that “perception is reality.” But Merklinger says it’s not correct and a “flawed” idea to think that if an athlete wins a medal, the sport gets funding. Merklinger says OTP makes funding recommendations not looking at past results but rather looking into the future over an eight year time horizon that takes into consideration many factors and not simply winning.

“As an organization, I think we need to do a better job in increasing the awareness and understanding of what we do,” she concedes. Merklinger says the stories that have come out in the past year have caused everyone in the sports system to do some soul searching to examine how things can be improved. “We are hearing horrible circumstances around situations where athletes have not been in a safe environment. Any one of those circumstances is one too many,” she says.

For more than 3 years, OTP has been focused on improving the culture in high performance sport. Merklinger says the organization has made “culture” a part of its mandate, to help National Sport Organizations (NSOs) achieve excellence through a clear set of values, including the provision of a safe and inclusive environment in the high performance program.

For example, OTP has provided culture assessment and audit tools to help NSOs identify areas where they may be struggling and how to improve. To create a better understanding with athletes, OTP recently created an athlete’s council linked to the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Athletes Commission. OTP is also in the final steps of appointing an athlete as a member of their board.

In response to some of the issues highlighted in sport over the past year, OTP has also introduced a new integrated wellness plan. One of the guiding principles of the plan is that “a system focus or refocus is needed to ensure that the psychological and physical health, wellness and safety of all athletes, coaches, technical leaders, Integrated Support Teams, and High Performance staff is prioritized within the National Sport Organization’s high performance plan.” 

OTP’s wellness plan offers examples of current best practices within NSOs and helps other sport organizations identify where they have gaps. OTP is also hiring cultural wellness facilitators to assist NSOs, and connecting them with experts from organizations such as Game Plan and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport. Sports can use OTP’s wellness plan as a starting point, but they need to show evidence they have implemented components of the plan by April of this year.

“In order to be considered for a funding recommendation, the sport needs to have some sort of a wellness framework developed. It could be rudimentary,” Merklinger says. She adds, “it’s critically important to get it started. It’s about giving [NSOs] the tools to identify where they can be better. Then, if they have weaknesses, or gaps, identify the experts who can help them.”

Swimming Canada as a case study

swimmers in a race/training in a lane pool doing the front strokeAfter Olympic medallist Emily Overholt shared publicly her battle with depression just weeks after returning from Rio 2016, she felt a huge sense of relief opening up about mental health.  When this came to light, it was also one of the major issues that forced Swimming Canada to look reflect on how it could make mental health and wellness more of a priority. The sport leaders wanted to offer support from experts while balancing the need for confidentiality for anyone who might be accessing those services. Now, Swimming Canada has a mental health lead who is part of the program.

“We’ve always taken our team physician who will deal with physical issues. But now we also have a physician of psychiatry who can deal with the mind when needed. I think when we have experts like that on the team, it sends a message that this is also important,” says John Atkinson, Director of High Performance for Swimming Canada.

More recently, Swimming Canada has seen just how important mental health is. In December 2021, swimming star Taylor Ruck spoke publicly about some of the challenges she faced with an eating disorder as part of a Globe and Mail investigation, in the hope it would help others.  

Atkinson says for many members of the Olympic and Paralympic teams, the pandemic has taken a toll and that has forced the team to do things in new ways. He’s had conversations with Olympic and World Championship medallists who needed to take a break from competition.  The Olympics, delayed a year in Tokyo, meant there were a number of high pressure events back to back including the Canadian Trials, World Championships and Commonwealth Games. Some athletes couldn’t do them all and Atkinson says that’s ok.

“It’s been a challenging year for the staff as well as the athletes. Everybody’s been kind of worn down through the pandemic. There have been lots of different issues that people have had to deal with. We recognized early in 2022, some people were going to have to go a slightly different route to what would have been the norm. There’s an acceptance that it’s not ‘results at all costs,’” Atkinson says. He adds, “I think we are still finding our way but we as a sport need to have that empathy.”

At their Olympic and Paralympic high performance centres, the team works with different sport psychologists on a daily basis. Atkinson says coaches can monitor the mood of athletes and notice if there are any big changes over a long period and seek out advice of experts to help support them. He also says they need to make sure they are communicating the support available. Because of confidentiality, sometimes, the work being done is not well known.

“We have to ask ourselves, have we actually communicated that support is there that they might not even know about? And that it might even be something they can access before it gets to the point where the panic button is hit,” Atkinson says.

Through using OTP’s new wellness framework, swimming has been able to see where there are gaps, in particular, for athletes in the sport beyond the National Team members at the high performance centres. For instance, he says athletes in the provinces and territories and at club level don’t enjoy the same benefits because they don’t have the same resources. Atkinson applauds the recent $2.4 million investment from the federal government for mental health and wellness support. 

Mental wellness needs to be more central to high performance sport

When it comes to high performance sport, Durand-Bush says mental health and wellness, as in the Swimming Canada example, should be a key focus for all NSOs. She believes that is the best way to cultivate psychologically healthy and safe cultures. Durand-Bush says it isn’t enough to just create environments to avoid cases of maltreatment. The sport system must create spaces for everyone to discuss mental health the same way they discuss physical health and injuries. “This would make a world of difference. Imagine telling athletes, ‘We want you to succeed, but not at the cost of your mental and physical health. We will do everything we can to protect and support you,’” she says. 

Durand-Bush notes that mental health and wellbeing can vary from one day to the next and conversations around this topic should be part of the daily training environment so that teams can develop strategies to address it. “Athletes are still scared to talk about this because they think they’re going to be negatively perceived or that they will be punished. I hear it all the time. It’s very sad.” Durand-Bush says it would never be that way with a physical injury: “If you pull a muscle, how many times would the coach or staff ask, ‘how are you doing today?’ That’s a no brainer and athletes are fine talking about that. But when it comes to their psychological well-being, they’re afraid to go there.” 

According to Durand-Bush, mental health and wellness must be measured and rewarded in Canada’s high performance sport system. “Until we say that mental health is going to be a performance indicator, a performance variable, an element that we are going to talk about, and we will make sure that we promote and nurture it, we will be very limited in what we accomplish,” she says. Merklinger agrees, to a point: “Yes, that might be the end goal, but we’re not there yet.”  She says NSOs need everyone’s assistance to get there, including the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Game Plan and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport.

“We’re trying to promote and nurture [mental wellness] within National Sport Organizations. Some are hitting it out of the park, some don’t even know what to do. So, it is way too early in the system, in my view, to say sports have to meet a mandatory score on the wellness framework,” Merklinger says.

The President of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Tricia Smith, a four-time Olympian, says 2022 has shown athletes need more of a voice with their NSOs and wellness has to be a major focus going forward: “It’s like a lot of things. When things get out of balance, things can go wrong.”  She adds, “We’re very much focused on our high performance programs in Canada and getting to the podium, but I think some people take that the wrong way and they think that’s the only thing you have to focus on. You forget that athletes are humans first. We need to make sure there’s a better balance going forward.”