What do race walking, municipal politics and Kraft Dinner have in common? Evan Dunfee! Watch as Gowling WLG associate Phedely Ariste sits down with Olympic medalist Evan Dunfee to discuss his career, brand sponsorship for athletes, the business of sport, mental health and so much more.


Phedely: Well, everyone, we're pleased to have Evan Dunfee join us for this one-on-one conversation. Evan is a Canadian Olympic racer. He's from Richmond, British Columbia. Evan made history throughout the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by winning the Bronze Medal in the 50 kilometer racewalk for Canada's first ever Olympic Medal in that athletic event. He's also made history at the 2019 World Athletic Championships when he won Bronze to become Canada's first ever medalist in the 50 kilometer race walk at that global event. Evan started racewalking when he was 10 years old and once wrote that he wanted to be an Olympian at a very young age. Ever since then he's committed himself to the sport of racewalking and his success now is a testament to his hard work, the discipline and the persistence over 20 years. He defines success as how hard a person works to pursue their dreams and not the overall outcome. Which is something that I connect with as well. So, Evan, thank you for joining us today.

Evan: I'm happy to be here.

Phedely: So just to get started, you knew you wanted to be an Olympian at a very young age. How did you come to that realization?

Evan: For me, I really wanted to be good at something. So growing up I was the shortest kid in the class. I had this big, thick red curly hair and I was the quintessential target for being picked on and bullied. I love sports but I wasn't very good at any of them. So that was what kind of drove me as I wanted to find something that I could be good at. That I could kind of, I'll show you, type of mentality to the other kids. So I just kept trying all these different sports hoping that I would find something I was good at. When you're the shortest kid in the class, and you've got the big glasses, and you're not very coordinated, any ball sports end up just breaking a lot of glasses. You get hit in the face a lot so ball sports won't quite for me and then I found running and running was kind of the thing where I was like, Ahh! I could be good at this. The natural progression from that was what's at the top? Where's the highest I can take this and the Olympics was this thing that I knew about, abstractly in the back of my head. My dad had coached at the '72 Olympics in Munich so I grew up knowing that it was this thing that was kind of the pinnacle of sports. I was like, alright. That seems like the logical end point to all this. I want to go to the Olympics. 10 years old just sort of started saying it and went from there.

Phedely: It's really interesting to hear and touching on what you just mentioned, you attribute your interest and success in sports to your family background, what role did family play in your overall career?

Evan: Sports were certainly something. My mom was a diver as well. I think my dad would have been happy if I was good at it but was just as happy to not have to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning to take me to the pool. So when I said I wanted to quit swimming I think he wasn't too unhappy at that. My parents were amazingly supportive, in terms of just giving us every opportunity that we wanted to take, and to try all these different sports. That was amazing. My grandma, my Nana, she was probably like the biggest influence even though she didn't play sports so much, growing up, but just her love of sport. She was the biggest sports fan ever. Her TV only needed to have the news and sports and that was all she ever watched. She was definitely a huge inspiration to me in just terms of like becoming a fan of sport.

Phedely: So I want to take you now into sponsorship for athletes. Evan, you've been navigating brand sponsorship for quite some time now. I'm wondering what you can tell us, or share with us, about sponsorship for athletes and do you believe that athletes even require sponsors?

Evan: Absolutely. It's an incredible privilege to get to say that my full-time job is being an athlete. Getting to represent my country and my City of Richmond on that global stage is a huge honour and every time you put that singlet on you get to be a little ambassador for all these great values. I cherish that so much. One of the great things I love about my race being 50km is that it's the longest foot race so I have the longest opportunity to be that ambassador. Andre De Grasse puts on his Canada singlet and he's out there for 10 seconds, or 9.9 seconds. Okay, I get to be out there for 4 hours being an ambassador. I love that. It is a full-time job and it is something that requires that funding. We're lucky in Canada that we have some avenues for that. Sport Canada does supply us with a little bit of a training allowance. It doesn't go very far but it's still incredibly useful and needed and important for us. But certainly, finding other like minded partners out in the world to have that same vision of, for me, my value, what I see my value in is promoting movement. Is talking about all the amazing things that come with being active, and moving, and setting goals and all those great things. I do believe there's some athletes who feel like sponsorship is a handout. It's a reward for simply being good at your sport. As a racewalker, there's not many people who are following the international racewalking scene, day in and day out. So I've had to learn from the get-go that my value isn't simply in being really fast at walking. My value is in what I can do in my community and because of that I've had to really focus on what can I give back to partners. What can I give back to those people who are partnering with me to make it valuable to them? Because it's an investment. Even the government funding that we get from Sport Canada, it's an investment. We wouldn't be getting this 20 grand of government money if they didn't think there was some value to it. So that's really how I've approached sponsorship as saying, what value can I provide? Knowing that for someone like, use Andre again as an example, 6 Olympic Medals, Canada's fastest man, he is valuable just because of that. People will tune in just to watch him run 100 meters and that has incredible value. I don't have the same ROI simply on my performance, what I do for a living, so I have to find other ways to create that value. That's what I think a lot of athletes do miss is that idea of I've run X time therefore I should be awarded X amount of money. Naw, that's not how it works. What are you providing? What kind of value are you giving these partners? Once you start to think of it that way, there's a whole world of partners out there, big, small, medium, that align with what your values are and you just need to seek them out and sell them on what kind of value you can give them back.

Phedely: With that being said, how do you ensure that those partners, or stakeholders, share the same values as you do?

Evan: A lot of times, in my experience, I don't have an agent. I sort of do all this stuff, that side of things on my own. So I've been really lucky that I've had a lot of companies, or not a lot, but the few companies that I've had, that I've partnered with, a lot of times they've come to me and they've said, "Hey. We see your values. You're fully on display with what you care about and they align perfectly with what we care about. Let's work together." There's only been a few times where I've actually gone out and found a company that I said, "Hey you. Your values are exactly what my values align with. Let's work together." But I probably do a lot better for myself if I did that a little bit more and try to seek those opportunities out. But yeah, it's a conversation. I was lucky enough before the Olympics to have Kraft Dinner come to me and want to work together. They basically said, "Hey look. You don't look like a person who takes themselves too seriously. We're not a company that takes ourselves too seriously. Let's do something in that realm."

Phedely: I represent athletes and sports organizations and something that we talk about, especially when it comes to sponsorships and brands, we often speak about social media which is something that I think a lot of athletes, particularly of this generation, will turn their minds to. How important would you say social media is in all of this and how important would you say, just generally, it is for an athlete to build that personal brand or that personal image?

Evan: It's certainly important. I think there are people to whom can utilize it way better and there's people who try way too hard to use it in a way that's not authentic to them. That's where I think you can really lose it is if your entire social media becomes a thinly veiled attempt to get sponsorships and find partners.

Phedely: I wanted to sort of also discuss mental health in sports with you. I'm a sports fan myself as well and, of course as are you, over the years I've noticed that there've been a lot of stories just involving mental health in sports, especially when we think about Carey Price. We think of Simone Biles. We think of Ben Simmons. Mental health has taken a more prominent place in sports and I believe for the better. With that being said, when you were competing, perhaps even now, continuing to be in the public eye what positive mental health strategies have you developed to simply cope?

Evan: Part of my brand is being highly self-deprecating, which makes it incredibly easy to open up and talk about when things genuinely aren't going great. It's, for whatever reason, it's just that sliding scale into talking about feels less because I'm already quite happy making fun of myself. It's a weird kind of leap. So I've been really lucky in that bit that I've been able to open up and talk about the struggles when I've had them. I'm also an incredibly privileged person and I know I have to acknowledge that privilege. As a straight, white male my life has been a lot easier than it has been for a lot of my friends and a lot of other people. Acknowledging that privilege is really important as well. So I think that also creates an easier barrier to talk about the struggle which is ridiculous. It shouldn't be but it does. Then I've also just benefitted from the amazing teammates that we have here in Canada who have really, I think, in the last 5 to 10 years made it a lot easier for athletes and possibly the broader public to talk about these things. We've had athletes who have shown great courage in coming forward and telling their story, and allowing other athletes just to step forward and create a safer space, at least. I've certainly benefitted from that. I've certainly benefitted from those athletes who have come before me to share their stories. We're in a reckoning right now with it, in the sports system in Canada, and we're seeing a lot more athletes come forward and speak about, not only their own mental health struggles, but the system that has failed them. It is a reckoning right now that we're seeing in sports in Canada, and I think the work that's been done in the last 10 years to bring us to this point, is so valuable in terms of how things are playing out now and how comfortable and courageous the athletes coming forward now are.

Phedely: Following up on that, in July 2021 I believe it was, the Federal Government announced that the Sport Dispute Resolution Center of Canada had been selected to establish and deliver a new independent safe sport mechanism. What are your thoughts on that announcement, Evan, and what changes would you like to see come from this mechanism, for sport here in Canada?

Evan: So there's tons of organizations right now that are pushing for change. You look there's athletes within the bobsleigh skeleton world who have been really vocal of late. Gymnastics, artistic swimming and so many others that are really bringing to light some of the systematic power imbalances that are harming the athletes. Those discussions are going to shape how this new system operates. There's a huge call for something entirely independent from the sports system, and that's necessary, because the athletes don't hold very much power. Especially in Olympic sports where collective action is very, very challenging. We don't have a union. We don't have any bargaining power. Individual sport, like athletics, you can't really go on strike because you're not really a team. So one individual striking isn't going to do too much. So yeah, collectively there's just not enough power that the athletes have right now. Part of the progress that needs to be had is an independent system to deal with these disputes, to give athletes at least in that area, a little bit more equal footing. There's still so much work to be done on the other end of the system before we even get to dispute resolution side of things. To actually give athletes more power at the outset, so that they can navigate their careers so that they're leaving the sport happy, healthy and fulfilled. I think that should be the goal. Any funding that goes towards sport in Canada, on the high performance end, the goal, the outcome shouldn't be about winning the most amount of medals possible. It should be about having the highest percentage possible of athletes who finish their career feeling like they've achieved what they set out to achieve and feel fulfilled. I think that's the best metric we could possibly use for success in Canada.

Phedely: I agree with you wholeheartedly, Evan. I'm going to switch gears with you a little bit here. You recently said on a podcast that you will run for city council in Richmond, BC in 2022, which was very exciting for me to hear about. How did you get interested in city council politics, or municipal politics I should say, and what exactly got you hooked?

Evan: Honestly, the pandemic, there was not much else going on, to be honest, at home early in 2020 and city councils around Canada had to start doing their meetings remotely and that meant that they were getting streamed online and put up on YouTube. I just started watching. My best friend is an architect and a planner and so for a couple of years I've been kind of getting pulled into that urbanism world. Then seeing the decisions that get made at that municipal level and really getting to dive into what municipal politics looks like, I was like there is much fine grained minutiae here, it's like preparing for a 50km racewalk. Dealing with that really fine minutiae is so similar to preparing for a race, and for training, and dealing with all those connected systems and planning and organizing and all that stuff. I was like I love this stuff. I love getting into that nitty gritty. So I just started watching the meetings and I was like I really enjoy this. I want to be a positive influence in my community. I want to be able to be a change maker in my community, and this is not the only way to do that, but it would leverage some of the advantages that I already have, with name recognition in my community, to be that avenue for change. To fight for climate resiliency. To fight for housing for everybody. I've walked my city more than anybody else and I've seen what my city looks like at 12km an hour and it's a very, very different to someone who only sees our city at 50 or 60km an hour as they're driving through it. I think that's a perspective that would be valuable and useful.

Phedely: Evan, to conclude this interview I sort of want to circle back to our brief discussion on success. You defined success as how hard a person works to pursue their dreams and you focus less on the overall outcome. Just hearing more about your story in speaking with you today, you strike me as someone who is motivated and who remembers to always stay hungry for the next goal, or for whatever pursuit you have in mind. I'm wondering if you can explain where that sort of hunger, for lack of a better term, comes from and how you stay motivated over the years.

Evan: For sure. So success to me is that process but that doesn't mean that those goals aren't like win. When my coach and I sat down 15 years ago to just kind of figure out what we want to do with racewalking, it was win Olympic Gold Medals and set world records. That's been the thing that I've been working towards this whole time. So we're not quite there yet. We haven't achieved those goals that we set out for ourselves half a lifetime ago. I think that's really what it comes down to is that I have these really big aspirations that I'm waking up everyday and working towards. Within that I have these little checkmarks along the way that are kind of more tangible. It's hard to just wake up and be like I want to win the Olympic Gold Medal in 10 years so I got to go out and crush this training session today. That abstractness is really hard so breaking it down into having those smaller goals along the way, those are really what, for lack of a better phrase, get me out of bed in the morning. It's having those smaller things that I'm working towards that are a part of that bigger dream. Then just making sure that I don't hinge my success on those little things. If I just keep my head down and keep working towards those things, that's what I can celebrate. That kind of ties it all together to making it a pretty fun journey.

Phedely: Thank you for sharing that, Evan. So just to conclude this interview I want to thank you, honestly, for sitting with us today and providing us with this rewarding conversation. It was a pleasure and a privilege for me. We often focus on the awards and the medals and the recognition, the title, but perhaps what's worth focusing on sometimes is all of the right choices that you made to be where you are today, and Evan, you've certainly made a lot of those right decisions.

Evan: Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun to chat.

Phedely: Thank you.

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