Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Two Cheers for A.C.!!

I'm not referring to air conditioning, alternating current, or Al Cowling here (two of which actually deserve the full three cheers, and the third no cheers at all, unless you happen to be one Orenthal James Simpson). No, I'm talking about Athletics Canada, our governing body for the sports of track and field (including Para), road racing, and cross country running. Why I'm celebrating AC now, but with only two of the customary three huzzahs, is the subject of this rare editorial installment of the blog.

Close and regular readers of this blog, and those simply familiar with my ouevre on the subjects of AC and of cross country running, whether in writing or in verbal rant form, will know that I have a long history of being critical of the former (in which I have been far from alone, sad to say), and of adoring the latter. These two things came together in a very real way when one of my close collaborators in PK-- the event meister Clive Morgan, whom some of you might recall from such works as The Loyalist Kids of Steel Triathlon, the 2012 AO X-C Championships, several editions of the Queen's Open X-C meet, several editions of our beloved Reddendale Ramble 5k, and the 2013 OUA X-C Championships-- and I decided we would construct a bid to host Athletic Canada's annual cross country championships, held near the end of November each year. What happened next did nothing to dull my ardour for X-C running, but it did complicate my feelings about A.C.; hence, the awarding of only two cheers instead of three to what some (well, really just me and maybe Clive so far) are calling "the new" AC.

By now, some of you will have heard that Physi-Kult Kingston was indeed chosen by AC to host the National X-C Championships for the four years following the end of its west coast run this fall (i.e. 2015 to 2018). What very few of you will know is that the process through which we came to win the bidding was anything but standard; indeed, it was entirely unprecedented in the recent history of these sorts of things, at least in Canada. For the uninitiated, bidding on an event such as Nats X-C involves first submitting an "intent to bid", in which the prospective bidder demonstrates, more or less, that they know what they're getting themselves into, and then offering the bid itself. The actual bid is simply a detailed response to a lengthy set of technical criteria that the solicitor of the bid deems important to address if a successful championship is to occur. For an X-C Championship, these criteria include things like: course dimensions, surface, and spectator-friendliness; on-site amenities such as parking and emergency services; and, a realistic budget to cover all of the necessary expenses. For staging a national championship, bidders must also address things like availability of nearby hotels and restaurants, accessibility by road and air, and capacity for "event building" in the community at large. For us, everything proceeded routinely through these two stages of the process. We submitted our intent to bid, engaged in a little back-and-forth clarification with the AC point man on the Competitions Committee (whom I'm choosing not to identify), and proceeded to assemble and submit our bid proper.

I should say that, by this time, we had learned who our bid competitors would be (one of the bits of info we asked AC for during the intent-to-bid stage). There had been "intents to bid" from a group in London (which would never proceed to the formal bid stage), Haliburton (about which we knew nothing), Montreal (which we knew just enough about to know that our bid was probably going to be superior), and Guelph (which we thought at first might not be from the Guelph-- Guelph/Speed River-- but rather the group that had recently hosted the Athletics Ontario Championship). Naturally, our greatest concern was with the Guelph bid (which turned out to be from Guelph/Speed River after all) We knew that they knew how to organize and build and event, that they had incumbency on their side (having hosted four consecutive years back in the '00s), and, more troublingly, that they had, potentially, inside pull via the recent appointment of Head Coach Dave Scott-Thomas to the position of AC Endurance Coordinator. We also strongly suspected that AC might see giving Guelph the championship for another four years as a back-door way of subsidizing Guelph's national team athletes (i.e. via the proceeds that hosting such events can generate). However, knowing what we knew both about Guelph's home course-- the one on which they hosted their four iterations of the championship, and on which they hold their annual university meet-- and about the course specifications for hosting the national championship, we also felt that any committee looking closely at the bid materials-- or better yet actually conducting on-site inspections of the various courses, as Athletics Ontario does-- would see that our layout was clearly superior (in that it actually met the specifications in the bid package in ways-- such as minimum width, distance of the start to the first turn, grass surface throughout, spectator visibility-- that the Guelph course simply did not). So it was with hope combined with that old, familiar feeling of unease with all things Athletics Canada that we awaited the verdict of it Competitions Committee, which was set to convene in early December of last year, following the championships in Vancouver.

But then something very strange happened. One night in late November, some 10 days before the Competitions Committee was to meet to decide our fate, Clive stumbled across this:

The sinking feeling I experienced upon seeing this clip was such that I neglected even to ask Clive what he was doing watching a Guelph City Counsel meeting late on a weeknight (he is a Guelph alum, but questions still remained). Dave's very clear and deliberate choice of words ("We have been asked to host again...", and not "We have been asked to submit a bid to host again...", or "We are hoping to host...") meant only one of two things: That Dave was lying to the counsel in order to bolster his case for the funding he was requesting (understandable, considering how these things go, yet also completely out of character), or that the Nats X-C bidding process for 2015-18, into which we had poured our time, energy, and expertise-- and in which cause we had managed to enlist some very busy professionals in the City of Kingston--, had been a fait acompli, a sham in which we were being treated like well meaning dupes, helping to cover for a rigged process.

Since we had already established a rapport with the AC point man on the committee, we immediately forwarded him a copy of the this clip, along with a request for clarification. He was nonchalant in assuring us that he had no idea to what Dave could have been referring, and that the integrity of the bid process was beyond question. In particular, he said that, in effect, there would have been no reason to rig a bid process that AC could simply have foregone in the first place (i.e. that, if it had wanted to award the championships to Guelph without considering other bids, it could have, and would have, simply gone ahead and done it.) He also claimed that Dave wasn't really an AC employee, because "his salary is paid by OTP (the special, high performance Own the Podium program of Winter Olympics fame and notoriety) not AC, and that he (Dave) had "nothing to do with the cross country championships" in any case). A little troubled by these last claims, which seem to deliberately miss the point (i.e. if the issue was Dave's titled AC position, and how it may have given him privileged access to the inner workings of AC before bids were even submitted, what difference did it make who paid his salary, or whether he was directly involved in the X-C bid selection process?) we nevertheless did the only thing we could and placed our faith (warily) in the integrity of the process.

Our journey off the map and into uncharted bureaucratic waters began the minute we received the boilerplate rejection email informing us that "our bid had not been successful", galling us with an offer to "discuss areas in which our bid could be improved for future candidature", and suggesting that the winning bid (Guelph's, it would soon be confirmed) had been selected principally on the basis of its superior "planning around (italics added) the competition to make it a unique event experience"-- criteria NOT solicited in any of the bid instructions. Suspecting that we had lost to the Guelph bid, we immediately asked for more information, including the composition of the Competitions Committee that had rendered the decision and, after a couple of quick exchanges, the procedure for appealing the decision. Our AC point man gave us the names of the committee members (which turned out to be publicly available information) and offered that we could proceed as we pleased, as AC was "very comfortable with how the (bid and selection) process played out." Seeing that, to our amazement, the 8 person committee that rejected our bid had been 1/4 composed of active associates/members of Guelph/Speed River (coach administrator Andrew Maloney and national team athlete Alex Genest) and that these members had apparently NOT recused themselves from deliberations or voting on the basis of a potential conflict of interest(!), we decided to mount a formal appeal on grounds of potential bias and the clear appearance of bias against our bid and in favour of the winning bid. So ended our correspondence with the AC point man; from this point to the conclusion of the process, we would deal strictly with AC top man Rob Guy and AC legal advisor Rachel Corbett.

After Ms Corbett's unequivocal acceptance of the terms of our appeal, the first remedy offered by AC was to send the bid materials back to the original committee for another look(!). For reasons too obvious to state, we suggested that this would not be satisfactory (if there was any substance to our suspicions, what were the odds that, having accused it of irregularities, including potential deliberate bias, that this committee was going to reverse its decision in our favour!?) After Ms Corbett's expression of support in principle for our objections, AC then agreed to appoint an entirely new, three-person appeals committee (and now we were truly at bureaucratic sea, with no familiar landmarks in sight) made up of appointees from AC (board athlete Jared McLeod) and legal rep Corbett (Alannah Hinrichsen), and the chair of the original Competitions Committee (John Halvorsen). It was eventually agreed that the appeal panel would render its decision based on original bid documents only (the aforementioned bid instructions, and the materials submitted by each bidder), as well as a copy of AC's "strategic plan" statement (a fairly Rorschact piece of work, in that it didn't seem to provide any kind of compass on this question at all).

As we waited the two and a half weeks it took for the committee to render what we hoped would a a final and binding decision we had time to reflect on our experience and to prepare for what we believed would be the inevitable outcome (that the Guelph bid would be re-selected). By now we firmly believed that there indeed had been a prior informal agreement between Guelph/Speed River and AC to return the championships there for another 4 years, even though it meant that, by the end of the 2015-18 run, these championships would have been held at only two venues (Guelph and Jericho Beach in Vancouver) over a period of 14 years-- longer than the span of many successful athlete's entire careers from Junior onward (indeed, even though it meant that the championships would have been held in Ontario 12 times in the past 20 years without ever moving east of the GTA!). My experience of having watched AC in action as both an athlete and coach (and my involvement in the sport has been uninterrupted for 34 years) convinced me that it (AC) would find a way to get what it wanted regardless-- and everything that had occurred thus far seem to suggest that someone at AC really wanted to put these championships back in Guelph.

But, to circle back for a moment, if there indeed had been an informal plan to give these championships back to Guelph, we believed it had probably begun innocently enough-- and we did not blame Guelph (whom we happen to like and respect for what they have built in a city not much different at all from Kingston) for taking advantage of whatever special, informal access it may have had to AC. It is entirely possible that there has never been much real competition to host these championships, particularly when the requirement to move them back and forth between regions of the country that have the climate to host an X-C meet at the beginning of a Canadian winter is taken into account. For all we knew, the last time Guelph won the right to host it had done so uncontested, and regardless of the fairly obvious deficiencies of its course where the technical specifications are concerned (something which would not have been apparent to anyone who had not gone looking for them). Besides, Guelph's four championships had been very well reviewed by all concerned (we attended, and very much enjoyed, all four of them). That they had simply been "asked to host again" therefore did not come as much of a surprise, and we were more than prepared to troop back to Guelph for another four years (if nothing else, it was going to be welcome relief from the hassle and expense of going to Vancouver, as lovely a place as that city is). What was different this time-- and what rankled-- was that there WAS ultimately another bid (ours), and one, furthermore, that we knew to be very good; and yet, AC had seemed prepared to attempt to honour whatever informal agreement it may have had with Guelph, even if it meant allowing the bid selection process to go forward in spite of some aforementioned glaring irregularities (AC's initial lack of concern with the appearance of bias, even when it was clearly pointed out to them, seem to us to betray its real intentions). If,in the end, we felt we had lost to a truly superior bid, and at the conclusion of an unquestionably clear and unbiased process, then we would have left the field without complaint. As things stood, we knew there would be some bitterness and disappointment when what we felt was the inevitable came to pass(on my part, not least because of what the whole experience would do to my fledgling belief that the secretive and insular culture of AC had actually changed under the leadership Rob Guy).

But our one hope was that perhaps AC really had changed since Mr. Guy took the helm. It was a promising sign that he had turned our request for an appeal promptly over to the estimable Rachel Corbett, and then agreed immediately and in full to all of her very fair an reasonable suggestions. This was, after all, the same Rob Guy who had rid AC of some of the principal sources of its old culture; who could be spotted frequently at championship events, mingling with the average fan, and clearly, fan-like himself, appearing to enjoy the action; and, who had finally put a stake in the heart of the old, egregious and self-defeating practice of "self-funding" for traveling national teams. In the end, perhaps our pessimism about the probable outcome of the final appeal was just an old reflex. Or, perhaps the Guelph bid really was better than ours, course deficiencies notwithstanding. In any case, since we couldn't figure out how anyone at AC would ever be able to influence an ad hoc committee of three, whose appointment seemed to have been entirely kosher, having been supervised by a professional sports lawyer and arbitrator, we allowed ourselves a sliver of hope over the two weeks the panel took to release its final decision.

In the end, the appeals committee did not address the issue of potential bias, and it did not zero in on any possible deficiencies in Guelph's course. It didn't have to. It simply confirmed, unanimously, the overall superiority of Physi-Kult's bid. The final paragraph of its detailed findings ran as follows:

In conclusion, there is no one single element of the respective bids that swayed the Panel one way or
another, but everything taken together indicated to the Panel that Physi-Kult was a superior bid in terms of
satisfying the bid requirements. The Panel is also of the view that offering this event opportunity to a host
which has not had it before is good for building capacity within the sport, as noted in the Strategic Plan
(So, to our surprise, it seems the vague "Strategic Plan" document had actually played a role after all!)

What is the point of relating all of this, beyond satisfying the curiousity of the curious? What is the lesson in this saga for all those who deal, and will deal, with our national governing body (and why, in the end, the final verdict of only two cheers for AC)?

First, an appeal was actually granted in this case-- when, in days gone by, our complaints would likely have been dismissed under the usual barrage of bureaucratese, with AC's brass content to simply brazen-out any attendant backlash (there's one cheer for the "new" AC). Second, the appeal process that ensued actually remedied the deficiencies of the original flawed process and managed to deliver a verdict that may not sit well with everyone in the organization (there's the second cheer). The withholding of the third cheer-- and that which indicates that any process of reform leading to greater professional accountability to its dues paying members (whose dues are now more important than ever) that Mr. Guy may have initiated is not yet complete-- is that it ever had to come to this in the first place. That AC could have been content to initially ignore such commonsense-beggaring irregularities as a committee allowing its members to argue for and vote on its own club's bid for a lucrative, multi-year hosting contract, or one of its contract employees-- and one with a direct connection to one of the clubs bidding on said contract-- publicly stating that the bid selection had been predetermined, strongly suggests that AC's transformation is not yet complete, and that those dealing with it should be prepared to demand greater clarity and accountability. If we had not been as persistent and skilled as we were in both preparing our bid and articulating our objections to the original vetting process, AC would ultimately have been allowed to award a four year championship hosting run to a bid that an appeal panel of three subsequently unanimously decided was inferior to one of its competitors.

In conclusion, we would say to the cross country runners of Canada, young and old (i.e. the community we feel AC's decision to award us these championships really serves): See you in Kingston in 2015! From arrival to after-party, we promise to make these the best four Canadian X-C Championships ever staged!


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