Alex Baumann will be missed

TORONTO – Alex Baumann is one of the all-time greatest Canadian Olympians, an icon in Canadian sport as well as damn good guy. So when the news broke Wednesday that he was leaving his post as CEO of the Own the Podium program and moving away from Canada, probably for good, the e-mails began pouring in. “In a sense, it’s been very nice. No one is saying, ‘Thank God we got rid of that a——,’ ” Baumann said, with a laugh.

All kidding aside, Baumann’s departure will be a great loss to Canadian sport. Anyone who’s old enough to remember the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when Baumann captured two gold medals in world record times, will feel a real sense of loss. For a certain age group, the Sudbury swimmer represented the best of what Canada had to offer in international sport. He was the antithesis of a generation of brain-washed Canadian amateur athletes whose goal at Olympics and world championships was to have fun and be a good sport.

Baumann never was afraid to say that his goal was to win, period. He didn’t go to Los Angeles to shake hands and trade pins. And thankfully, he brought that mentality back to Canada in 2006 when he returned from Australia (where he had been working in high performance administration for 15 years) to accept the position of executive director of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Road to Excellence program (later OTP) — an initiative set up in response to Canada’s brutal showing at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics.

Since taking over, Baumann has done a superb job helping to turn around Canada’s fortunes in international sport. He is a leader, a motivator and, unlike many of his ilk in Canadian amateur sport, isn’t afraid to speak his mind, even when it goes against the collective “wisdom” of Canada’s politically correct elite.

Last week, in the wake of a controversial column I wrote deriding the politically correct, nonsensical way in which Sport Canada distributes funding, Baumann sent me a supportive e-mail. “We need a targeted and prioritized approach (one that OTP follows),” he wrote. “Unfortunately Sport Canada is egalitarian. I have always said that there is no egalitarianism in high performance sport. Until we get a fully integrated and co-ordinated sport system that is focussed and targeted we will never be as good as we can be.”

Right on. Sport Canada spreads funding out far too thinly to too many sports and organizations, leaving elite Canadian sport unable to reach its potential at the international level, particularly the Olympics.

My argument is the federal government should target specific sports which hold traditional significance in our country, sports that are historically popular in Canada, instead of dishing out millions of dollars in a ridiculous effort to appease everyone and everything. For instance, does SC really need to fund the sport of bowls to the tune of $206,000 a year, or broomball to the tune of $203,000?

SC also funds too many advocacy groups, like the inessential Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity, which received a stunning $524,000 this year, as well as some charities. I’m all for funding charities but why is it coming out of Sport Canada’s budget?

But none of that is Baumann’s concern anymore. He cited a number of factors in his decision to accept the job as CEO for High Performance Sport New Zealand. He recently had a second cancer scare, and while he’s been given the all-clear, he realized his immediate family is too far away from his wife Tracy’s family in Australia. Baumann no longer has family in Canada and his son Ashton had been considering attending university in Australia. “I didn’t want the family to come apart,” he said.

As well, both his children, Ashton and Tabitha, are elite swimmers and their Ottawa based coach recently moved to Edmonton. Baumann has found a good club in Auckland for them to train with. So, moving to New Zealand was a good compromise. And it’s not like the small Pacific nation is completely unknown to Baumann. During his time in Australia, his family visited New Zealand often. And what many people don’t know, before he and his parents moved to Sudbury when Alex was five, the Baumanns lived in New Zealand for about two years, when his dad accepted a teaching position at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. “I remember the five-cent meat pies,” said Baumann, with a laugh.

The Baumann family fled Czechoslovakia in 1967, before Russian troops invaded the country in order to stop political reforms, moving to New Zealand and then Canada.

Ashton and Tabitha will continue to represent Canada internationally. In fact, Ashton will swim for Canada at next month’s Pan Am Games in Mexico. “There is a reason that I have a Maple Leaf tattooed over my heart,” Baumann said in a statement Wednesday. “I love Canada! But, at this time, I have to do what I believe to be the best for my family.”

Canada’s loss is New Zealand’s gain.