TnfNorth Interview with Rob Guy

Rob Guy was appointed as the CEO of Athletics Canada in October 2010 after three years as the director of Athletics Manitoba. Following a successful national-level running career of his own, Rob had more than twenty years of leadership experience in the non-profit and for-profit sectors working with customer based sales and marketing organizations. recently caught up with Guy at his office in Ottawa.

Andrew Maloney: We are often focused on what doesn’t work in this sport, but what do you feel works very well right now?

Rob Guy: I think we’ve got great tools and people to work with.  We have great athletes and exceptional coaches and I think we have in large part a good plan for developing those athletes.

AM: What in your mind are issues that can be improved upon across the country?

RG: We can all do a better job of working together. That starts from clubs, universities, and national team programs realizing we’re all in this together on issues such as athlete assistance, national team programs, event centers, and on the business side of things with developing processes. To give you an example I was in Toronto speaking with a club coach who had developed several carded athletes but for some reason they cannot seem to co-exist with university programs and I’m thinking, ‘what’s wrong with this situation?’ We have a great coach with great athletes and its nothing more than personalities and egos preventing athletes from being successful. That’s the thing we have to fix. We can’t have people worrying about whose going to get credit for an athlete.

AM: Can you understand that some coaches who consistently develop athletes to a level only to see them plucked away elsewhere might become jaded?

RG: Absolutely. I know Bill Stephens and I have had this conversation. Bill is a great coach and has had super athletes and a few of them have moved onto the event center and I told Bill you’re a great coach and should be recognized and appreciated for what you’ve done. I also think we need to recognize that there is an opportunity for an athlete to get into a world class training environment with a ton of opportunities. I don’t think we have done a good job of respecting and appreciating the personal coach because they are the most important part of the process because without them the athlete wouldn’t have gotten where they were. So we need to be supporting and encouraging them rather than discouraging them. In some cases, we haven’t gone about communication with these athletes in a good way. It’s been almost behind the back with their personal coach when it should be in consultation.

AM: Could some of these issues be addressed by more recognition of the personal coach and perhaps bringing that coach into the national training center for a week or two every year?

RG: Absolutely. People like Bill are continually developing athletes and every year it seems he has athletes going to our national middle-distance centers so he should be an important part of it and when his athlete is recognized his name should be included with the national center coach so that he is respected and appreciated just as much as whoever they were working with right then. The personal coach should feel a part of the system rather than feeling left behind.

AM: Under the current Athlete Assistance Program, approximately 70-80% of athletes points are based upon the location they train with there being only seven places (Kamloops, Victoria, Lethbridge, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal) these points can be maximized and only in a specific event group in each city. Are we to believe for example that a thrower can only reach their potential if they are training in Kamloops or Lethbridge?

RG: Just clarify, only about 25-35% of athlete points in the carding process are based on where an athlete trains. The remainder are performance based. It can be done elsewhere. I don’t think there is one way to do things and I think that we know we can produce an athlete outside of an event center but it comes down to we only have limited resources and a small pool of athletes so we cannot take the American approach where they have 300 million people and run them into the ground and whoever is left standing moves on. So in the case of a thrower, when you have a proven international-level coach such as Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk, who has produced multiple international-level athletes, to put an athlete in a situation with a coach like that and provide them with sport science and financial support is important. We feel like that provides an athlete with the best possible training environment to be successful.

I think the same could be said of the NCAA. There are some really good schools in the U.S. but in certain event groups we just found that by having professional world class coaches and providing athletes with a ton of support that gave them the best opportunity they need to be successful in their event in the long term. Is Dave-Scott Thomas at Guelph doing a great job? Absolutely. As far as funding, Own the Podium looks at where is the potential to win medals.

AM: Is that fair?

RG: It’s probably not fair that they target certain events and medal potential. I go to multi-sport functions where some sports have no funding at all from OTP. There are targeted sport and non-tagreted sports and there is almost this sense of hostility about it. It’s too bad in a way. Alex Bauman’s philosophy and the philosophy he asks for when he identifies athletics as a sport is to pick events where we have the potential to win medals. We have a lot great athletes but not everyone has the potential to be top-8 in the world and quite frankly they look at the African dominance of distance running and it’s hard to win a medal. Is that fair? Probably not, but that’s the reality of high performance sport and it’s a lot different than 10-20 years ago.

AM:  It was said by a prominent Athletics Canada official last year that we are “nation of sprinters and throwers.” Do you believe that?

RG: I heard that comment and I remember thinking I sure hope it was taken out of context because I don’t believe it. I am former middle distance athlete myself and we have had a lot of medals in those events. We are more than just a throwing and sprint nation.

AM: How can we connect the sport to the larger general running community?

RG: It’s a lot of communication and I want to be a lot more visible and a lot more out there. I have been to every single awards banquet across the country and the neat thing is you meet the coaches and administrators and hear what’s going on in the sport and listen to what they say and you realize there are a lot of good ideas out there. I think we are doing a better job working with the community. We meet with provincial branches via conference call every month and we need to have those discussions and tweak things when they are required. I came from a branch where I thought Athletics Canada didn’t communicate that well and so that’s why we started it. So for example, if we were to come out with new carding documents we would bring it up with the provincial branches because we need to talk with the people who affected by it.

AM:  With some of the foreign athletes training at national training centers, are these foreign athletes reaping the benefits of Canadian taxpayers?

RG: Some of our center coaches are independent contractors. So we have an employment contract with them where they are going to coach carded athletes in a particular event but they also have an agreement to work with foreign athletes so long as it is not taking away from Canadian athletes. I think in most cases it helps to have athletes at that level training alongside Canadian athletes. Of course, if it became a situation where it was working to the detriment of Canadian athletes then that would not be a good thing.

AM: Do you see an issue with national training centers that are ostensibly based out of Canadian locations spending significant portions or more of the year training in the southern United States?

RG: My reaction is what’s good for the athlete is most important. What we are trying to do is create world class training environments. I know from being in Manitoba how cold it is most of the year. Since we are competing in a summer sport in a winter country, I think it is okay that they spend significant time in places such as Phoenix. The concept of training year-round in good weather is something that enables us to be world class.

AM: I think many people were a bit flabbergasted to learn recently that Canadian record holder and Olympic finalist Megan (Metcalfe) Wright is not part of the Athlete Assistance Program. How do you respond to criticisms that the AAP is ageist?

RG: I actually learned about it by reading it in an article as well. I think it is probably one of those things where according to the carding criteria as athletes get older and the way the age-adjusted standards work is really a path for taking a look at world championship and Olympic medallists and what they were doing at a certain age. It is skewed towards younger athletes and perhaps too much so. One of the criticisms and concerns out there is its easier to achieve a standard when you are seventeen than when you are twenty-seven. There is an argument that why are we carding seventeen year-old kids living at home tax free? I think one of the things to being new to this job is I can ask those questions and if I’m not getting the answers I want we can say maybe that is wrong. The initial impression I am getting talking to people is we are carding a lot of younger guys and maybe we have gone too far that way as opposed to older guys. Carding is viewed as investment for athletes and their potential in the future rather a reward for what they have done. Maybe we need to look at and tweak a few things. I think we constantly need to evaluate our programs and policies and if they are off we cannot be hesitant to make adjustments.

AM: What do you envision the National Track League doing for the sport in this country?

RG: It’s great. We have a chance to have high quality competition in Canada so people don’t have to go to Europe to get into high-level meets. Will it be perfect? Nope. We will have to work out some things but the concept of having events in Canada where we have athletes really close to the world-class level getting high-level competition is great for our young kids to see our stars at home and great for promoting the sport.

AM: The USATF has a program known as USA Distance Project that helps to connect major U.S. road races and elite American athletes. Is such a project viable in Canada?

RG: I’d love to think so. I’ve always felt we shouldn’t be reliant on programs like Own the Podium as the only way for us to have money. I can appreciate what Own the Podium is trying to accomplish and their opinion on our ability to win medals. I think the distance community has the potential to work with the road running community to put together programs like the one you mentioned. We shouldn’t be always reliant on government money and I think the road running community has the potential to help fund many initiatives of the distance program like in the United States. I think an example of that would be Allan Waters and the Waterfront Marathon. He took some of the profits from the marathon and funded three of our top marathoners to get to the World Championships. It was one of those cases where they had achieved the IAAF standard and Own the Podium didn’t have funding to help send them. So somebody from outside the government sector stepped up and made the opportunity a reality.

AM: We appreciate your time and insights on these issues.

RG: I think when you go out there and talk to people with an open mind it helps. I’m good at that and when someone comes to me and shows me something that can be improved I’m open to changing it.