Event Recap - Power Play Up Close With: The Women of Team Canada
Written by Alyson Walker, Chief Commercial Officer – OverActive Media
On March 30, 2021, WISE Toronto hosted our annual Power Play event featuring the women of Team Canada – specifically the female leaders taking Canada to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games this coming July and August, postponed by one year due to the pandemic.
Every two years, the world takes a moment to pause and celebrate the unification of humanity, culture and peace in the name of the Olympic movement. One year ago, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games just four months away, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the globe and presented a threat to the Games like rarely seen before. The Canadian Olympic Committee, along with athletes, National Sport Organizations and other key stakeholders were faced with an unprecedented decision – risk the health and safety of the team or take a leadership position and ‘do the right thing’. They chose the latter and we had the opportunity to hear about the tremendously difficult decisions involved from three formidable leaders - who also happen to be women.
Our incredibly accomplished panel included:
Jacqueline Ryan: Chief Brand and Commercial Officer, Canadian Olympic Committee
Marnie McBean OC OLY: Three-time Olympic champion and Team Canada’s Tokyo 2020 Chef de Mission
Rosie MacLennan OLY: Two-time Olympic champion and Chair, COC Athletes’ Commission
The session was moderated by:
Sandra Levy OLY: Two-time Olympian and Chief People Officer, Canadian Olympic Committee
The ensuing discussion was as inspirational as they come – including impressive leadership moments, precedent setting decisions, epic pivots and a behind the scenes glimpse into the high-pressure world of Olympic athletes, leaders and business professionals.
WISE Founding Board Member Cynthia Hill, General Counsel at Canadian Tire Corp, opened the event with a fitting tribute to International Women’s Day and Gender Equality Month – tying the 2021 IWD theme ‘Choose To Challenge’ to the very challenge that faced this group of women one year ago and in the months since.
The discussion began with a look back to one year ago when the COC made the very tough decision not to send Team Canada to Tokyo due to COVID-19 concerns and specifically, how the athletes would feel.
Rosie MacLennan, as back-to-back Olympic gold medalist, competing athlete and Athlete’s Commission representative shared first-hand what that moment felt like. In one word, stressful. Rosie shared how athletes were pulled in 2 distinct, complex directions. On the one hand, watching a global pandemic unfold and on the other hand, wanting to compete and realize years of hard work and training. In the first instance, worrying about loved ones, front line workers and the health of our citizens and in the second, training for four years for the Olympics and having to sneak into facilities to train. “We had to consider the impact emotionally, physically and psychologically on the 300+ athletes that were training and targeting Tokyo but ultimately follow the values of Team Canada and our own principles. We knew what we needed to do and hoped that the rest of Team Canada felt that there was only one clear decision to be made”.
As Chef de Mission, Marnie McBean wears many hats in this temporary but extremely important appointment – she is the official head of the delegation for Team Canada, sits on many committees, is a mentor, an ambassador, a spokesperson, an advocate, and another voice and perspective – not to mention a friend to many athletes. Marnie’s experience was one that was both practical and reasonable. With athletes around the world training and competing, health problems escalating globally and a pending border closure, Marnie recalls it took great collaboration of all groups including the COC, the Chief Medical Officer, the Athlete’s Commission and National Sport Organizations. She refers to the decision that had to be made was as the parent in the room. “As an athlete, I hated ‘wishy-washy’ advice – training to be the best in the world, everything has to be speed of sport and clear”. Many people thought that the decision could have been held off and some athletes and other countries were concerned - but ultimately everyone knew it was the right decision to make and those who made the decision did it collaboratively with the best intentions in mind.
Jacquie Ryan, the COC’s Chief Commercial and Chief Brand Officer, was simultaneously facing significant challenges on the business side of the organization. Adding onto Rosie and Marnie’s recollections, Jacquie shared that it’s “never wrong to do the right thing”. For Jacquie and her team, this moment was so much bigger than sport. Managing the sequence of communications was a monumental task – consistent, transparent and authentic communication with the athletes, the Board of Directors, members of the sports system, partners, staff and fans was critical.
Jacquie’s brand and digital team were responsible for communicating with fans - given just three hours to come up with a campaign once the decision was made. With quick, passionate minds at work, the “We Are All Team Canada” campaign was born and a renewed focus on athletes’ voices and their stories of hard work, adaptation and resilience began to be the focal point of the digital strategy. The COC’s purpose became to “Transform Canada through the Power of Sport” to which Jacquie shared that there has never been a more important time to demonstrate this purpose and never been a more important time to be Olympic. The campaign inspired Canadians to stay home and put health and safety first – the rallying cry was hugely successful thanks in part to celebrities, athletes, and media amplifying the message. Research showed that 96% of Canadians were in support of the COC’s decision, driving all metrics up from brand opinion to engagement and audience growth.
Finally, COC Partners, the major source of funding for the COC and ultimately the high-performance ecosystem were cooperative, supportive and better yet, they all stepped up and showed up when it was needed the most with new programs, charity initiatives and renewed support for a postponed 2020 Tokyo Games.
The topic of discussion then shifted to adaptation and pivoting, frequently used terms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rosie shared what it has been like for athletes in training with an additional year to train for the Olympics. Training programs had to be fully adapted, injuries had to heal, planning for a shift in peak performance…not to mention vulnerable support staff, new training environments and the constant adaptation required as competition schedules change and qualification timing shifts without notice. Adaptability has been critical. “Focus on what you can control” is Rosie’s mantra, “The Olympics is an incredible celebration of humanity and it’s supposed to bring the world together – it just wasn’t possible last year but this year it can be”.
When asked how she helps athletes stay resilient and focused through the pandemic journey, Marnie’s response was simple, “I don’t have to help athletes build resilience, resilience is built into sport”. Marnie began communicating regularly with Team Canada athletes pre-pandemic, an art and skill that she honed as a formal mentor to Olympic athletes for many years. The communication cadence has provided athletes with a placemark and reminded them that they are part of a team that is 37 million people strong. She believes their core focus can have two pillars: the health and safety of the team and staying committed to high performance on the path to the Olympic Games. The most stressful scenario right now is team selection – many athletes still have to qualify for the Games with new training regimes, changing competition schedules and the pressure that comes with trying to qualify after so many years of training. In terms of the Games themselves, while things will look and feel different in some ways, in many ways the experience for the athletes will be the same. There will not be international fans, but there will be plenty of local fans. There will not be city tours and there will be more turnover in the Olympic village to keep numbers down, but athletes will have every opportunity to perform at their best on the field of play. Marnie aptly closed by saying: “Sometimes I think we should take the Olympic Motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ and add ‘Adaptius’ to it because everyone is adapting right now, and adaptation is the root of resilience”
In terms of pivots, Jacquie highlighted so many it was easy to lose count. From athletes pivoting their training routines and locations to partners pivoting marketing campaigns and hospitality programs to the COC digital team pivoting to keep channels alive. From a sport system perspective, the COC worked with Own the Podium, and the Canadian Paralympic Committee, to strike a Return to Sport task force and a $5 million fund focused on bringing high performance sport back – including investments in rapid testing machines, creating healthy training environments and providing PPE where required. “Pivots have required a focus on getting the team to the Games this summer, no distractions and embracing hope and inspiration”.
In terms of what excites each of these amazing women about the Games this summer. For Marnie, it is the intense switch into Games mode followed by the emotional release at the Closing Ceremony after achieving so much. For Rosie, it is the opportunity to show the world the work the athletes have put in and for Jacquie it is looking forward to watching the most gender balanced games in history where 49% of athletes will be women – an important celebration of female Team Canada athletes.
The final topic discussed was that of motivation, a concept that is hard for everyone after living with a pandemic for over a year. Marnie encouraged athletes to be ok with having two emotions – the natural occurrence of doubts or fears alongside the confidence that comes with being a high-performance athlete. Marnie also shared that people aren’t always motivated by the same thing all the time – sometimes you will train because you love it, sometimes because you love winning, sometimes because you hate losing and sometimes because it’s your job. “Stay focused on why you love sport and expect the path to be turbulent”.
Rosie’s motivation ebbs and flows and she has learned to take a break, breath and plan when things change unexpectedly. The path is still not clear for Rosie with competitions being cancelled and plans consistently changing:
“Each day I have the opportunity to live my dream, to focus on the sport that I love, to be surrounded by an incredibly supportive team, to work with my coach who is phenomenal, to get creative, pushing myself each and every day to be better. The motivation for me always comes back to why I do this sport and focusing on good days or bad days. What is it that I can do to get a little bit closer – it might be specific skills or it might be that I’m so limited I have to go to plan Z and work on really small fine details of technique. You just have to show up and put one foot in front of the other, build your own motivation, build your own momentum and focus on why you do what you do”.
Sandra closed by sharing that this summer’s Tokyo Summer Olympic games will be more impactful than ever. These Games will provide Canadians and the world with an opportunity to feel proud, joyful and inspired at a time when we need it most. The resilience of athletes will ignite our collective ability to overcome challenges. These Games will be a global celebration done responsibly after more than a year of closed borders, even without fans and tourism. Tokyo 2020 will still have the essence of the Games, the world coming together to celebrate peace and unity through sport.
We couldn’t agree more.
WISE Toronto would like to thank Canadian Tire and Sobey’s for their generous support and sponsorship of the 2021 Power Play Up event, and the Women of Team Canada for such a memorable discussion.
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