These past few weeks, like many other people around the world, I have spent some of my evening hours watching the 2018 Winter Olympics on television. Although athletic competitions may have little in common with charitable foundations like TIRF, there are a few parallels that have occurred to me.
First, the concept of competition functions in both contexts. Obviously, the Olympics involve very high levels of preparation, years and years of training, endless hours of practice, and elimination through preliminary events. TIRF also involves competition, for both its Doctoral Dissertation Grants (DDGs) program and its annual Alatis Prize initiative. We can also say that both the DDG candidates and the authors of chapters or articles nominated for the Alatis Prize have spent years preparing as researchers and writers.
Second, in both contexts, there is a huge emphasis on collaboration and cooperation. In the Olympics, these factors are apparent in the team sports, such as ice hockey and curling, or the pair events such as ice dancing and bobsledding. But cooperation and collaboration are also required to be successful in individual events: Athletes must collaborate with their coaches and other trainers. They must cooperate with the guidelines of the Olympic Committee and the host-country officials. In TIRF’s context, DDG applicants are “coached” by their doctoral supervisors and faculty committees. If they are gathering data on human subjects, they must abide by the rules of ethical data collection, either through interaction with the Institutional Review Board of their home institution or by following the ethics guidelines available through journals and professional associations.
Third, evaluative criteria play a huge role in the cultures of both TIRF and the Olympics. Of course, reviewers of TIRF DDG proposals bring their own expertise to the process, but they must judge each application according to its merit relative to the articulated criteria. The same is true of the Alatis Prize nominations: Specific criteria are used to judge each chapter or article nominated for this prestigious award. In both cases, more than one rater is involved in the evaluation process. In the Olympics, multiple judges are used in events where performance is rated rather than measured. Some evaluative criteria are purely quantitative and objective—for instance, the time it takes from the start to the finish in speed skating. In contexts where time can be measured so precisely, fractions of a second can make the difference between a gold-medal performance, and a silver or a bronze. But there is also a subjective element to Olympics judging, just as there is in evaluating language learners’ speech and writing, or teachers’ excellence. For ice skating, for instance, a particular jump can be categorized in terms of its difficulty and technical merit—a criterion that is pre-established and determined by a “Technical Panel” of judges. But a skater’s performance also receives program component scores. The five program components are skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation. Writing teachers and language testing specialists will recognize these categories as comprising an example of an analytic scoring system.
Fourth, language is at the very heart of the Olympics and of TIRF’s mission. This point of comparison is abundantly clear for TIRF. For the Olympics, the very concept of sport can be considered an international language. Though I may not speak German or Finnish, if I know how to play ice hockey, I can communicate with Germans and Finns on the ice. We can use long pieces of wood, or sticks, to pass around a circular piece of rubber, the puck, while gliding on boots with skinny metal blades, or skates. In no time at all, we can communicate with one another through playing ice hockey by knowing how to play the sport.
Fifth, as institutions, both TIRF and the Olympics seek to promote international excellence. We do so by establishing international standards, organizing events, and reorganizing and publicizing outstanding work.
One final comparison is appropriate here. Funding international initiatives is costly. While TIRF does not build stadiums or ski jumps, we do try to extend our grant-making capabilities while not overtaxing our infrastructure. But unlike the Olympics, in which many host cities spend fortunes to hold the international event only to see the facilities remain underutilized for years to come, TIRF’s programs and activities are sustainable through the ongoing collaboration of our partners and supporters. Our budget remains lean and our Trustees make careful decisions when approving our annual spending. Over the coming year, we sincerely hope to secure increased financial stability, so that – like the Olympics – we may continue our operations for generations to come. To do so, we will need your help.