© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated
Jeff Adams is a six-time Canadian Paralympic athlete competing in the T-54 category. He won 13 Paralympic medals during his career including three golds. He competed over a range of distances from 400-metres to 5,000-metres, however, specialised more in the 800m and 1500m distance events.
He is also a six-time world champion.
Adams was a determined athlete. In 2002, he climbed the CN Tower, which includes 1,776 steps after he was barred from entry to an establishment.
“I got kicked out of a bar because I had gone down stairs in my chair, and the manager told me I was a “fire hazard”. My brother is a litigation lawyer, and advised me to do something positive instead of butting heads legally, so we came up with the idea of the Tower climb to raise money for a school outreach program to provide education and a public awareness campaign about accessibility.”
Two years later, Adams climbed the Acropolis. The Acropolis climb was at the request of Heritage Canada, and was actually a lot tougher for Adams than the CN Tower climb. “the stairs are worn smooth, and angle downward from use, so I was constantly fighting to not slip off the back of the stair, and they didn’t block the way, so there were like a thousand kids very enthusiastically patting me on the back and generally getting in the way.”
Since retirement, Adams founded Icon Wheelchairs, which was acquired two years ago. He is now the Executive Director of the International ArtsGames Foundation, which creates events that bring cultures together. The foundation was created by Sylvia Sweeney on a promise to her uncle Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist. She has grown the foundation and has staged events at three different Olympic Games.
On December 9, Athletics Canada announced the firing of their national head coach Peter Eriksson and Adams isn’t too happy about it.
Christopher Kelsall: Jeff, the general perspective on the firing of Peter Eriksson is that his management style was not a good fit. You have an issue with this coming out less than three years after his hire. Care to share your feelings?
Jeff Adams: I think what I’m frustrated with most is of the backstory for how he was hired, and why he was hired.
CK: Which is?
JA: He was hired specifically to turn an underperforming NSO around, and he was aggressively recruited away from his position at UK Athletics, where he was head coach of both the Olympic and Paralympic programs – he took a big pay cut to come home and help Athletics Canada.
He was hired to produce a high performance program, and his goal was three medals in Rio, so it wasn’t a “medals at all costs” approach – he was much more focussed on top-16 performances. He instituted a very revolutionary funding structure, by directing more funds to people who showed medal potential, and letting them self-direct how to spend their funding – personal training camps, sport psych, nutrition, whatever they wanted (within reason, and they had to show him their spending plan/budget).
This approach is unheard of in Canadian sport, and particularly so in Athletics – it works, but it means doing things in a very un-Canadian way; the best athletes getting the most funding approach isn’t in our DNA.
This pissed off athletes who don’t have medal potential (and their coaches), who figured that they were owed the same support, despite not having realistic chances at achieving a high level performance. To be clear, this an international level performance we’re talking about, not being Canadian champion, or setting a Canadian record that isn’t close to a world best time.
They hired him to make really difficult decisions, and to turn the program around, which he did.
They knew what his personality is like when they hired him – he’s blunt, and doesn’t blow smoke up anyone’s ass, whether they’re the medal potentials or not.
I’ve heard a lot of BS about him coming in at a good time with a lot of athletes on the rise, but you look back over his career, and he delivers over and over and over again – the recent Canadian success isn’t a coincidence, or because of lucky timing.
I’d also like to see the results of the survey and interviews that they did, and what the sample was, whether they interviewed Paralympic athletes as well – we really don’t know what the review said in any real details.
CK: Over the 20 years that you worked with Peter, did you ever see evidence of his apparent management style that was the cause of his firing?
JA: All the time.
He’s blunt, unyielding, and opinionated. This was no secret to the people who hired him, and in large part, it was specifically because of his management style that he was hired.
Now that he delivered and turned the program around, those same people are firing him for one of the reasons he was hired.
If you look at the messages on social media from the UK people he left – they’re begging him to come back, and look at the blog post by Rachel Seaman, talking about the unprecedented level of support she felt. Go ask Damian Warner, or Melissa Bishop or the women’s relay team their opinions.
Here’s a story that highlights his approach as a coach:
Paris 2005, I was qualified into the final at the IAAF World champs – a French athlete was favoured to win, and it was cold and raining, traditionally the worst conditions for me to race in.
I was a very superstitious athlete, and one of my rituals was to drink a double espresso at the end of warm-up, on the way into the call room.
I was in the call room, and obsessing so much about the conditions and getting my wet weather gear ready that I suddenly realized that I forgot to drink my espresso. I turned to Peter and said: “Shit, I didn’t drink my coffee.”
He said: “Where is it?” (I always brought it in a water bottle from the hotel/village). I told him that it was in a bottle in my equipment bag, back in the tent at the far end of the warm-up track.
He didn’t say another word, but turned and sprinted across the field to the other end of the track, grabbed my coffee, and sprinted back – like I’m talking high knees and pumping arms.
In 2005 he was not in shape to do that.
He handed me my coffee, and I drank it and all was right in my superstitious little head.
I won a silver medal 45 minutes later.
I came off the track, and first thing he said to me: “You and your stupid superstitions nearly killed me today – good job out there, you should have attacked with more snap, but it was good how you held him on the outside for so long.”
He and I both knew how unreasonable it was for me to need to drink the coffee, and we both knew that physiologically it made zero difference, but he knew that it would make a psychological difference, and he was dedicated to making sure that nothing got left behind when it came to the effort of performing.
CK: What are the kind of things that Peter did that were positives for Athletics Canada?
JA: So some numbers first:
In 2012, 4% of the Canadian Athletics team produced top-16 performances.
In 2016, 43.8% produced top-16 performances.
That is a turnaround for a program – it wasn’t just a handful of athletes on the rise.
I’ll also point to the Lanni Marchant situation too, because she’s been by far the most vocal athlete siding against Peter, and has been working hard to have him fired since May.
To frame this, she’s a low-performing athlete, and is just not competitive internationally. She was lapped at least twice in the 10,000-metres and finished around 3K behind the leaders in the marathon – that’s just so far off the pace that it’s unrealistic for her to ever even contemplate a top-16 performance.
This isn’t to say that she’s not an accomplished runner – she holds Canadian records, and has been Canadian champion, wonderful accomplishments. Having said that, held up against the best in the world, she doesn’t measure up.
In May, she decided that she needed to know if she was going to be selected for the team in both the 10,000-metres and the marathon. The team announcement was scheduled for later, at the beginning of the summer. Peter told me, he got calls from her agent that were very aggressive, telling him that if he didn’t announce that she was selected in both, that his life would be made miserable.
This might make me a jerk, but having a low-performing athlete demanding special treatment that no other athlete is given just doesn’t fly with me.
A media campaign got launched, and he and the team were accused of withholding the information. Here’s the thing though – no athlete knew that they were selected until the announcement. There’s a bunch of reasons why the team announcement is scheduled at the time it is, including the possibility that an athlete could get injured, and for marketing reasons among others.
Nobody ever said that she wouldn’t be selected in both distances, except her. Peter would have preferred her to focus on the 10,000m, which had been her target event, and what her funding had been based on for the last two years, but nobody ever said that she wouldn’t be selected.
Now here’s the point I want to make – Peter made the conscious decision to not say anything about the situation in the media – to not respond to the campaign. I know this, because I basically yelled at him a few times that he needed to defend himself – he steadfastly refused.
He wouldn’t engage in a public dispute with an athlete because it would have negatively affected the team culture that he was trying to create, and because it would have required him to explain why he wanted her to concentrate on her focus event – that she wasn’t nearly talented enough to attempt that kind of a double.
Even though it meant not defending himself against a very vocal and very intelligent athlete with a ton of media savvy and some allies in the marathon world, he didn’t do it – he refused to do it.
JA: Because it would have been bad for the team.
CK: Oh come on, that sounds a little conspiracy theory-like, don’t you think?
JA: Oh, trust me my actual conspiracy theories are way better than this one.
If you mean that I’m painting Peter with a complimentary brush, I’ll admit to being biased, but it’s all on the record in a sense, in terms of being able to go back to the articles – you won’t find one single time that Peter said that she wouldn’t be allowed to do both.
He didn’t want her to do the double, because from a purely physiological point of view, no human can recover from a max effort 10K in under 48 hours, and it’s virtually certain that her training was not 100% focussed on the 10K, which was supposed to be her focus event. This is shown in her results, where she put in two mediocre performances – on the surface, doing both events seems like a great accomplishment, but had she focussed on the 10K, could she have finished in the top-16? She was about 20 seconds off that result, so maybe it was out of reach for her even if she had focussed entirely on the 10K but that’s kind of the main point. If she can’t finish in the top-16, why is she a factor in deciding who the head coach of the team should be?
CK: Her 10K and marathon bests are nearly identical in performance value according to the IAAF’s tables. Perhaps she could have chosen either event, rather than two. Perhaps Peter was thinking that the 10,000-metres is a softer event internationally these days – mind you a record was set on the day, which is difficult to predict.
JA: You might be right – I think she was like 2:30 off a top-16 in the marathon, and 20 seconds off in the 10k – from Peter’s point of view, she had declared the 10K as her focus event, and late in the game got it in her head that she wanted to do the double – personally, I think it was the only plan she had to get media attention, and in her defence, you have to make a living.
Knowing him, it would have been more about “sticking to the plan” – she declared the 10K to be focal, and assuming that she had been training specifically for it for at least two years, switching in the same year as the games to try to do both would have made him crazy – he really, really hates not sticking to a plan unless there’s a very compelling reason to shift it.
He’s kept me from doing some dumb stuff over the years with that philosophy – athletes get that panicky feeling often, and being forced to stick to a plan (as long as it’s a good one) is really calming, for me at least.
I asked him why he didn’t just take her aside and tell her to keep it to herself, but that she would be allowed to compete in both, and his explanation was that no other athlete was getting that information, that none of them knew, and that it was unfair to the rest to give her preferential treatment.
I don’t know if I agree 100%, but I’ve done similar things with my employees. You have to be even and fair to everyone, and sometimes individuals get pissed off.
The counterpoint is to imagine if he gave her information before the official announcement, and word got out that he had told one of the athletes that they were confirmed, but not all.
Hindsight being 20/20, he could have sat down with her and explained the “why” of why he wasn’t telling her, but going back to my experience in business, you can get sucked into catering to employees that need a lot of attention, and at some point, the boss has to be the boss.
CK: Sounds like you are targeting Marchant’s debacle, which was unique.
JA: To be clear, she’s not the only athlete that’s frustrated, and I don’t mean to single her out, but it’s one of the conflicts that people are pinning things to in terms of advocating for Peter being fired.
Josh Cassidy is another athlete that butted heads with Peter for similar reasons, he has a really hard time sticking to a plan, and is really difficult to coach – he decided that he would be self-coached for a little while, and Peter had to insist that he find a qualified coach, which from an outside perspective seemed like an obviously necessary component to achieving a performance.
Josh resisted and resisted, and at some point, Peter just disengaged because it was taking too much of his time away from athletes who needed and appreciated it. Stepping back made Josh feel like he was being ignored, which increased the tension between them, but continuing to pay attention to Josh would have had a negative effect on the team. These are the kind of really difficult decisions that have to be made.
I feel bad for the next person who is put into the position, because they’ll have to know that if they don’t keep everyone happy, the management and board could do exactly the same thing to them.
CK: Fair enough. Chantal Petitclerc was pretty upset about the news of his firing. It appears that perhaps he had a special relationship with certain athletes, para as well as racewalkers. So he was great with high-performing athletes, how do you think he was with athletes that are not there yet. I am not talking the Lanni Marchants of the world, but Bishop four years ago – not there, but with tremendous potential?
JA: He’s certainly focussed on high performance athletes over the last decade or so, but you look at his roots back in the early ‘90s at the University of Alberta, when he was coaching two twenty year olds, me and Chantal, who both I think fit your description – young, talented, lots of potential, but with a ton of work needed on the basic, foundation elements that great athletic careers are built on.
One of the things he’s most talented at is being able to modify his coaching style to individual athletes – the way he coached me was entirely different from how he coached Chantal for example. I would get incredibly frustrated when coaches talked about what I was doing right, particularly when it came to technique or race strategy, which were two of my strongest areas. Chantal responded way better to positive reinforcement and you could watch him flip the script going back and forth between us.
As we developed as athletes, and went from kids with talent and potential into podium threats and finally making them play O Canada in stadiums around the world, his coaching style changed with us – he got more unyielding in demanding our 100% commitment and effort, because we could take it, and that’s what is needed at that level – it’s baked in when you get to an elite level, and you want to be the one in the middle when the song gets played.
In recent years, it’s specifically because of his talent that his focus has had to be on the top performers – he only has so much “inventory” of time to give.
One of the things I’ve watched him do is to help mentor other coaches who can spend the time that up and coming athletes need to stretch for their potential. I watched him work with Paula Dunn at UK athletics for example – he helped her transition from being a great athlete to being a great coach, and you shoot a bullet at him, she’d jump in the way.
CK: Tell me about your apparent positive test and where things stand today on the issue?
JA: The CCES put Athletics Canada and I on opposite sides of the table – they acted as part of the prosecution against me, which I thought was a really sketchy decision – I mean, can you imagine the Police Association or any other professional association acting as prosecution against one of their own members? They could have stayed neutral and not taken any position, for or against, but they chose to act as prosecution.
Following the case, I filed a civil suit for damages against the CCES, Sport Canada and Athletics Canada because of the improprieties in my case – the A sample not matching the B sample, the CCES withholding evidence of a case prior to mine with identical circumstances of contamination of the sample, CCES witnesses giving false testimony and other pretty egregious things that happened.
We named Athletics Canada as a party to the lawsuit partly because of some of the positions they took or adopted during the hearings – the worst was that they said I didn’t have a disability that would trigger the Annex of the anti-doping rules that deal with athletes with a disability – I had to ask for a recess so I could leave the room and calm down.
We just came to a settlement agreement, and I released them from the lawsuit in November, so hopefully I can start to return to the sport in some way.
It’s amazing though, even though it happened over a decade ago, no matter that even the CCES conceded that there was no cheating or attempt to cheat in my case, notwithstanding that I was exonerated by the CAS, if someone wants to score cheap shots on me, it’s the first thing that comes up. They have to ignore all of the facts to do it, and end up looking foolish, but it is what it is – as an athlete, even when you’re completely innocent, any anti-doping accusation has a lifelong potential to continue to harm you.
CK: Getting back to the subject of Eriksson, considering the review process with the surveys and interviews, would you suggest that at the end of the day, was he just not Canadian enough?
JA: No, I think his biggest problem was and will remain that he has an uncompromising approach to any project that he takes on. He brings a professional sports attitude and approach to amateur organizations like Athletics Canada who wouldn’t recognize a high performance program if it was fed to them on a spoon.
They hired him to turn the program around – he did.
They hired him to make tough funding decisions – he did.
They hired him to win medals – he set up an environment to help athletes do exactly that.
He told them in the hiring process that not everyone was going to be happy, and they knew exactly what his personality and approach was, and hired him because of it.
He delivered, and delivered the way he said he would, and they’re firing him after the most successful Olympic campaign since 1936, because a few disgruntled underperforming athletes are unhappy.