Two accomplished Western alumni are helping vault Team Canada to success as they play key organizational and motivational roles at the Tokyo Olympics.
David Shoemaker is CEO of the Canada Olympic Committee, in charge of the business and operational side of the organization; and Marnie McBean is chef de mission, leader of Canada’s team of athletes, coaches and support staff.
“I get to be the spokesperson, the ambassador, the mentor, the mascot – whatever the team seems to need,” McBean, BA’97 (kinesiology), LLD’03, said in summarizing her role during a pre-Games talk sponsored by the Canadian Club of Toronto. McBean won three Olympic gold medals and a bronze in four different rowing events during two Olympic Games and is an inductee into Canada’s Sports and Olympics halls of fame. This will be her 10th Olympic Games.
Shoemaker, who graduated with a law degree from Western in 1996 and received the Arthur T. Little Gold Medal for achieving highest academic standing in his class, has equally impressive credentials in sports business and management.
For seven years, Shoemaker was CEO of NBA China, the largest basketball market outside of the United States; and before that, he was president of the Women’s Tennis Association. He is fluent in English, French and Mandarin.
When Shoemaker and McBean began to their respective roles in 2019, neither had an inkling that the pandemic would force a major pivot in their planning.
A role McBean anticipated would be a middle-distance race towards Tokyo 2020 turned into more of a marathon. She’d expected she would “be the familiar and friendly face” to athletes as she travelled around the country connecting with the team in their training environments. She would then take a couple of advance scouting trips to Tokyo in early 2020 before welcoming the team to Japan that summer.
Instead, the 2020 Games were postponed and the Team Canada effort was focused on being part of a global effort to control the spread of COVID-19. (Canadian athletes were in the vanguard of saying they would not compete in 2020, a decision soon followed by other countries’ teams and then by the IOC.)
Athletes, coaches, team leaders and managers have adapted through resilience and drive, she said during her talk in Toronto late this spring.
“The ingenuity and creativity of our athletes has been amazing. It shouldn’t surprise us but it does,” McBean said.
“We have athletes who are working with their communities: like Damian Warner in London, working with Western to figure out how to use some of the (city arena) spaces that nobody else can use and turn it into a training ground for a decathlete,” she said.
As an athlete with a long career who also missed events due to injury, McBean has helped athletes understand and accept that the road to the Olympics invariably has unexpected detours.
“You listen to anyone, any champion, they’re never going to go, ‘Well, I started here and I did a straight line over to here and it was great.’ Like, that’s not even a good story… [Instead,] fear and doubt are part of every path. The presence of fear and doubt doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong path. It usually means you’re on the right path and you care about it.”
Road to Tokyo
McBean is one of Canada’s most accomplished athletes and athlete mentors, having won 12 world and Olympic medals in her rowing career, many of those while she was also earning her degree in kinesiology at Western. She has worked closely with Canadian Olympic teams to “own the podium” as a specialist in athlete preparation and mentoring.
Her coach for more than a decade was legendary (and now retired) rowing coach Al Morrow.
Western awarded McBean an honorary doctorate in 2003.
Shoemaker has always been passionate about competitive sports: his mother was a professional tennis player. He became hooked on the Olympics as he watched the success of the “Crazy Canucks” ski team at Lake Placid in 1980, and of cyclist Steve Bauer at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
His appointment to lead the COC “felt like a literal homecoming, being able to come back and live in Canada, but also a professional homecoming so that I could be part of something that my whole life I’ve been cheering for,” he said.
Team Canada is taking 371 athletes to compete in Tokyo, the largest Canadian Olympics team since 1984.
Games like no other
All told, the Games will have 11,000 athletes from 206 countries – during a global pandemic with the most stringent health measures ever enacted at a Games.
Shoemaker said during the same Canadian Club Toronto address that he understands the nervousness of the Japanese people, whose Olympic pride is balanced with worries about a runaway infection rate.
“That’s why we’ve worked so hard ourselves and worked so hard in conjunction with the IOC to take it so seriously – the countermeasures, the protocols, the testing, the tracing, the isolating –and made a commitment that these Games will be like no other set of Games that have ever taken place before,” he said.
Ever-evolving rules have meant changing a lot of logistics on the fly, he said.
Friends and family members won’t be able to watch except virtually; there won’t be a Canadian Olympic House where athletes from all countries can gather to socialize; no athletes cheering teammates in other sports; and everyone will be sent home within 48 hours of the end of their events for their safety and that of others.
And, he noted, the COC is a not-for-profit business aimed at developing athletes. He said the Canadian enterprise is funded almost entirely through 27 marketing partnerships, some of whom signed on or added to their investments during the pandemic.
“It’s been a really challenging period, and yet the business has continued to thrive,” he said.
While it has pushed towards podium finishes, there’s also an emphasis on equity and diversity of access, he said. “We’re going to develop a little bit more focus on athletes at the other end of the sport continuing (to ask), ‘Can we make sure that every single Canadian, no matter your walk of life, has access to sport?’ Because we think Team Canada needs to reflect Canada… And that’s a real commitment we’re making.”
Added McBean, “One of the things I’ve always said about my role is I can never ever take any credit for anybody’s performance. But I’m so proud of being part of that preparation. And so we dig in … and we enjoy the ride. It’s going to be pretty amazing.”
For more on the Games, visit Western at the Tokyo Olympics.