Road to the Olympic Games: COC's Smith has Olympian task to counter cynicism surrounding Games

Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes' journeys on and off the field of play. Here's what to look for on this weekend's show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.

Tricia Smith has just been acclaimed as Canada's Olympic leader for the foreseeable future.

But in a time where the Olympics themselves are a far cry from the sacred movement they once were, this former rower has some tricky waters to navigate and some tough decisions to make as president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

As worldwide cynicism grows and the integrity of the Games is increasingly called into question, Smith's task will be to restore faith in not only the Canadian Olympic team, but also to help forge a process by which the international Olympic movement reclaims some measure of credibility.

It won't be easy, but Smith, a lawyer, businesswoman and decorated athlete, has the background to make some headway if she has the guts to make the right choices and the backbone to stand her ground.

She's newly elected to the International Olympic Committee and has been appointed to the medical and legal commissions, as well as sitting on the board of the International Court of Arbitration for Sport.  Smith is also the vice-president of FISA, the international governing body for rowing, and has the full support of a major sport governing body.

In other words, she is extremely powerful, well-connected, and in perfect position to effect change if she's enough of a visionary.

That change involves tackling issues like doping in sport, which has reached epidemic proportions and threatens to erase the general public's faith in all athletic endeavours. It also means taking a serious look at the sustainability of the current Olympic model, one which sees potential Olympic hosts dropping like flies because the debt burden is too great in relation to the perceived, positive, legacy of staging the Games.

Culture at COC was unhealthy

In addition to this, Smith is the successor to a domestic Olympic leader where culture in the workplace was unhealthy and where style often trumped substance vis-à-vis adherence to the Olympic ideal.

Lavish parades, pronouncements and marketing initiatives seemed at times to be more important than the welfare of the athletes and the less tangible function of disseminating so-called Olympic values.

Still, as she embarks on her renewed tenure, Smith won't go it alone.  She has the backing of a board of directors which, at the outset, has a fair measure of credibility and seems determined to hold Smith to task.

Therese Brisson, an Olympic gold medalist as a hockey player, former kinesiology professor and currently a successful marketing executive, has been re-elected to the board and believes Smith is solidifying her control over the direction of the national movement at a critical time.

"I understand the cynicism. It's hard not to think that way. I find myself in that camp at times," Brisson said. "It's important that we be more athlete focussed, always results focussed but clearly having substance and holding close to the Olympic values."

Work to be done

Three-time Olympic swimming medalist, and chef de mission for the London 2012 Games, Mark Tewksbury is newly elected to the COC board. It's an organization which he has butted heads with over the course of his career as an athlete. Now he's reserving comment on Smith's ability to make headway while he focuses on getting the lay of the land.

That said, Tewksbury is adamant there's a lot of work to be done in order to ensure the long-term health of the Olympic Games.

"I don't disagree that there is a spreading cynicism about the Olympic movement," he said. "That's a big part of the reason that I wanted to join the board."

It's a stormy time for the Olympics, not only in Canada but internationally.

Stockholm has just dropped out of the bid process for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. Only two cities - Los Angeles and Paris - are in the running for the 2024 Summer Games. The NHL has all but closed the door on its players participating at PyeongChang 2018.

In addition, the argument over the rights of athletes, the lingering perception of greed and corruption on the part of those who run the Olympics and the constant stench of cheating clouds the international sports horizon.

So that means Tricia Smith is wading into the perfect storm. But she may be at the helm of the right ship to help guide the Olympics to shore.

'The world needs more Canada'

"My belief is the world needs a lot more Canada," Brisson said. 

"We've come a long way in this country in raising resources and heightening awareness of the Canadian Olympic brand as well as producing results," she said. "But now we must lead with integrity, be accountable, live the values every day, and be the best possible national Olympic committee that we can possibly be.

"I think we'd all like to see the IOC move faster when it comes to doping and other issues. Tricia's biggest challenge may be in dealing with the IOC when our two perspectives differ."

It will be interesting to see how Tricia Smith sets her course.

As the Canadian leader she comes from the right place to give the Olympics a fighting chance.

But she has to correctly measure the strength of her country and the courage of her convictions. Then she has to insist that the right things get done.