David Shoemaker is no stranger to unusual challenges. At the World Tennis Association, he was on the executive team that secured equal prize money for women at the French Open and Wimbledon. As NBA China’s head, he brokered media deals and worked with the government to promote basketball in schools. Now, as CEO and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Shoemaker, 50, will lead 840 athletes and staff to Tokyo amid a global health crisis.
He spoke to John Stackhouse and Naomi Powell from his cottage in Collingwood.
What’s your sport?
As a youngster it was alpine skiing. I just love to race. But I tore my ACL at age 13 and I’ve been into team sports ever since. Basketball’s the sport I always want to watch, always want to play. And I’m into triathlons now in my second act of life, let’s call it.
Who’s your favorite athlete of all time?
Probably Michael Jordan. But the athlete that got me inspired as a young skier was Steve Podborski. The Lake Placid Olympics were in 1980 and Canada’s hopes were pinned on Ken Read. Ken’s binding released in the men’s downhill and Podborski came down and won a bronze medal. To me, that was the most important medal in Canadian Olympic history.
In those days, we didn’t win many medals. And the Crazy Canucks—to even be competing with these powerhouses, the Swiss and the Austrians, the Germans—it was something really special. To unexpectedly win a medal…that just seemed so momentous. Canada celebrated bronze like gold.
What else about that achievement stands out to you?
I didn’t grow up skiing at a posh ski resort, but a little club in the Gatineau Hills. I shoveled driveways to earn money to buy that extra piece of ski equipment. So I think it’s something about the work ethic, the perseverance that went into those Canadian ski racers with very little support behind them succeeding on the world stage.
These Olympics are obviously shrouded in controversy over COVID. Why is it important that they go ahead?
It’s going to be a global celebration of resilience, where we have 206 countries coming together, 11,000 athletes, who have all endured a pandemic. Canada and other countries desperately crave the celebration of a goal going in a net or crossing a finish line. That can relieve the stress and anxiety that we’ve all felt.
Are the athletes nervous?
Every athlete is different, but I’m sure they’re singularly focused on competing at their absolute best. The thing they’d be most nervous about is an intangible thing taking them out of competition—testing positive for COVID, or being a close contact with somebody who tests positive. We’re taking every step to limit the chance of that.
How else did COVID change things for Olympic athletes?
This might sound simple, but it’s really significant: they’re a year later than they were supposed to be. That’s thrown a lot of athletes’ plans into disarray. In some cases, they’re going to have to peak a year later. For others, it’s deprived them of the chance to compete in Tokyo. Then for others, it’s opened a window. Summer McIntosh may be a good example—she’s a 14 year old swimmer who’s lightning-quick. Maybe that extra year allowed her to not just qualify, but have a real shot at doing something special.
How do we build sport back better after COVID?
I think we could take a long-term view that by, let’s call it 2040, our Canadian Olympic team needs to look exactly like Canada. While we have some very nice diversity in our Summer Olympic team, our Winter Olympic team is not diverse enough. And the only way we can change that is through access to sport. For Canadians all across the country, sport is expensive, but the threshold to getting involved in some instructional programs is becoming prohibitive.
Did we as a country focus too much on the top of pyramid with Own the Podium?
I could never say that. Own the Podium has been wildly successful. But for us to have long term success in sport, we have to transform the country through sport. And that change starts at the bottom of the pyramid.
What did you learn from working with China’s education ministry to promote basketball in schools?
That government investment can create dramatic results. Kids in China were told for decades that the only measure of success was academics. We were trying to prove sport could build essential skills like teamwork, leadership, communication. The government bought into that. And when the government buys into an idea, it has an incredible ability to transform things. I saw some things in China’s relationship with sport, though, that were not well thought out. For instance, the Chinese value gold medals in Olympic sport above all else.
What else did you learn from China’s approach?
Start young, but not with intense drills for eight hours a day. Start young, but get kids to learn to love the sport. My three children were born in China and they started sport at three or four. I had to make sure they were enjoying it as opposed to feeling like it was this rote activity they had to do.
Kids now spend a lot of time on screens, including on eSports (which some see as an Olympic sport of the future.) What are your thoughts on that?
I’m all for the virtual versions of real sports. I played Blades of Steel, the hockey Nintendo game and that made me want to play hockey more. I think there’s a future for virtual versions of sport in the Olympic movement if they can help do that. Where I challenge it is when they don’t have a correlation to sport. It runs counter to everything we’re trying to do in the Olympic movement to encourage people to sit at a computer terminal for hours every day.
These Olympics won’t have the crowds and spectacle of previous ones. What’s lost in that?
I think maybe the fans will lose a little bit. But I think we’ll gain something in the focus on sport and achievement, that resilience and perseverance. Certainly, the athletes, they’ll lose a little bit, but their Olympic dream isn’t made or broken based on whether fans are in attendance.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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