What is the purpose of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) and varsity university athletics in the greater landscape of the Canadian sport system?
As a former CIS athlete and coach, I have had this discussion numerous times with athletes, coaches, administrators, professors, and university students.
Is the purpose to produce high performance athletes that will represent the country and/or go on to play professionally? Is it to enhance the experience of university students (student-athletes, but just as importantly the general student population)?
Curiously, the official purpose as outlined in the CIS Strategic Plan is to ‘lead, promote, and celebrate excellence in sport and academics’ a statement that could be interpreted in any number of ways.
When we look at how other university sport bodies fit into national sport systems we find two predominant types. The first type is the American structure. In this type, for most sports, the high performance stream goes through the NCAA university system before culminating in the professional and/or Olympic ranks. The second type seen in many European and South American countries is university sport as separate from the high performance stream. In this type, in most sports, athletes train in sport clubs that have high performance development teams that feed into professional teams. An example would be FC Barcelona, which hosts developmental and professional teams for football, basketball, handball, volleyball, ice hockey, athletics, swimming, rugby, wheelchair basketball… you get the idea. In this second type of sport system, the sport clubs take on the responsibility of developing high performance talent, whereas university sport is focused on friendly competition with the purpose of enhancing the student experience.
So where does the CIS fall? I decided to examine the recently concluded 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto for a better idea.
Toronto Pan Am 2015 and the CIS
The CIS currently recognizes and holds national championships in 10 men’s sports and 11 women’s sports. 16 of the 21 CIS Championship sports were represented at the Pan Am Games in 2015.
For most of the CIS sports listed in the table above, the Pan Am Games represent a stepping-stone and development tool for national team programs. With the exception of women’s field hockey, the Games did not represent a direct chance to qualify for an Olympic Games or World Championship. As such is the case, it follows that many athletes that are in the process of developing towards the professional, Olympic, and national-team levels of competition would be selected to participate.
The diagram below illustrates the high performance development path of Pan Am 2015 Team Canada athletes in the aforementioned CIS Championship sports.
Athletes on Team Canada were almost equally developing in the CIS as compared to the NCAA. Digging into the data a bit deeper, there is great variation in the percentage of athletes in each sport that participated in CIS sport.
In some CIS sports, as is the case for the men’s volleyball, women’s rugby, and women’s field hockey, the Pan Am 2015 team was composed of predominantly CIS athletes. At the other extreme, the men’s and women’s soccer and basketball teams had very few CIS athletes on roster. Although Pan Am 2015 represents just a snapshot in the greater Canadian sport schedule, this data supports the confusion over the role of the CIS in Canadian high performance sport.
Not to be overlooked in this equation is that aside from athletes, the CIS also provides the Canadian sport system with high performance coaches, physiotherapists, and athletic administrators while also providing sport facilities to Canadian communities.
Out of curiosity, I performed a similar analysis on athletes from Team USA and Team Brazil. For Team USA, I used the same sports as were used for the Team Canada analysis. For Team Brazil, high performance development information was only readily available for men’s and women’s basketball, soccer, and volleyball.
These graphs illustrate that high performance streams for athletes in the US and Brazil appear to be much more straightforward.
As Canada continues to put an emphasis on high performance sport, I am intrigued as to how the role of the CIS will transition.
Will the CIS become an NCAA 2.0? Will we see the development of a club system (maybe through the existing CHL clubs or through Canadian universities?)? Or will the CIS continue to be a mélange of competitive student league and high performance development channel? Stay tuned and let the discussions continue!