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Eye on gold at Sochi

by David Scott | January 10, 2014

With the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, on the doorstep, Chris Overholt, BA’87 (History, King’s), and Canada’s winter Olympians are ready to roll.

“Of course, we enjoyed wonderful success in Vancouver. We hope to build on that momentum and we fully expect to contend for the No. 1 position in Sochi,” says Overholt, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

High expectations follow the team’s Vancouver Winter Games performance in 2010. Canada netted the most gold medals, 14, ever won by a host country.

Part of that success is attributed to the Own the Podium program, of which Overholt is now a board member. Western alumnus and former Olympic gold medalist Roger Jackson, BA’63, started the not-for-profit organization prior to the Vancouver Games to challenge Canadian athletes to strive for top medal contention in 2010. Its ideals continue into these games.

“We very much believe in that idea of targeted excellence, of nurturing a strategy around high performance that is rooted in analytics and sports science and innovation,” Overholt says.

Joining the COC in April 2010, Overholt has served as both chief operating officer and chief marketing officer. He was named CEO in August 2011.

Even before that, Overholt was no stranger to sports. He’s held top positions with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. (1998-2003) as well as the Bank Atlantic Center and Florida Panthers of the NHL (2003-05). Immediately prior to joining the COC, Overholt was vice-president of marketing partnerships and new media for the Miami Dolphins of the NFL (2006-10).

“This is a far more personal pursuit for me than I have ever encountered in my career,” Overholt said of his Olympic executive experience. “The athletes are absolutely authentic to the nation. As Canadians, they’re known to us because they are us. They’re emblematic of what the nation represents. They’re diverse as we as a country are diverse. They’re our neighbours, sons and daughters. They’re the kids we watched grow up from Hazelton, B.C.; Charlottetown, PEI; and Lambeth, Ont.”

That emotional connection makes a “much easier point of resonance” than professional sports represent. Much of his personal success can be traced back to Western, specifically working with friends in two successful student council presidential campaigns.

Overholt and Jordan Bitove, BA’87, are still friends to this day. They worked on both the R. Loron Orris, BA’86, MBA’93, and Allan Williams, BA’88, campaigns.

“We worked on it with a bunch of people,” Overholt said. “That was the first time I came to understand the power of what a collection of people who believe in something can do when they all come together around it.”

Fellow Western alumnus Derek Kent, BA’92, took over Overholt’s marketing role, although renamed executive director, corporate and brand communications. Kent is formerly the U.S. media relations director of NIKE, Inc.

“He certainly brings great brand experience. Nike is one of the best storytellers in the world and one of the best sports brands in the world. So Derek brings all of that experience and it’s been a great add-on to our team.”

While viewers at home might be fans of a particular sport – skiing, hockey or figure skating, for instance – Overholt stresses Canada’s Olympians are one team.

“We’re an amalgam of sports. We don’t have any singular focus as the leaders of the Canadian Olympic Team. But we are well-represented in most every sport. We are a proud sporting nation generally and currently in our development, particularly strong in the winter side,” he said. “So we expect to be competitive in virtually all disciplines.”

“Resources in every way” continue to represent the single greatest need for Canadian Olympians, Overholt says. “Of course, it naturally starts with a discussion around financial resource, but it goes to other things,” he continues. “It extends to the development of volunteers and coaches in this country and people who can help develop sport. … We are a Top 8 nation in the world in terms of our economic standing, but we are not today a Top 8 standing in all of what we do on the Olympic side.”

Overholt’s COC team said nothing could prepare him for the excitement – and the demands – of the Olympic Games. He was on the ground for the first time at the London Games in 2012.

“It was very intense – long days and just exhausting. In many ways, it was emotional for all of us,” he says. “At the same time, strength comes from working with a set of individuals who are all focused on the same thing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a competing athlete, supporting coach, team member or whether you’re supporting those who are on the field of play; we all understand we have a role to play, and that’s as unique an experience as I’ve ever had in my lifetime. It’s very rewarding.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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