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The power of sport: A new research institute will explore the limits of human performance

Sylvan Adams – a former Montrealer, renowned philanthropist, champion cyclist and proud McGill parent – gives $29 million to launch the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute at McGill

Sylvan Adams

Sylvan Adams

Photo Credit: Ziv Koren

Sylvan Adams was in his late 30s when he was invited to join some friends in his neighbourhood on their morning bike rides. 

Though Adams was an athlete in his youth, the demands of running the family business – Iberville Developments, one of the largest real-estate development companies in Canada – and raising four children with his wife, Margaret, left him little time for sports.

But Adams doesn’t do anything halfway. He went all in: “I bought the whole kit. The bike, the clothes, foot-pump, cycling computer, shoes, water bottles, all of it,” Adams recalls. "For a grand total that cost less than the value of my wheels today."

Soon after that first ride, he began training with Paulo Saldanha, BEd’86, MA’00, Canada’s preeminent IRONMAN champion, and entered his first amateur race, in Laval.

“I realized I was pretty good on a bike,” says Adams.  And he loved “the feeling of elation, the thrill, the jolt of adrenaline and excitement” that he got from racing. He was hooked.

Twenty-five years later, Adams is an amateur age group champion cyclist, having won numerous medals and awards, including two World Masters Championships, four Pan American gold medals, six Canadian Masters championships, and 19 Quebec Masters titles. 

True to form, he hasn’t stopped there. He has channeled his passion for cycling – and his unshakeable faith in the power of sport to bring people together – into his philanthropic endeavours.

Now, with an extraordinary $29-million investment, Adams has undertaken yet another ambitious project, in collaboration with McGill University: to establish the best sports science research institute in the world. Adams’s donation – the largest ever made to a faculty of education in Canada – will help launch the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute (SASSI) at McGill, positioning the University to become a world leader in research and discovery in sports science.  

“This gift will have a transformational impact for McGill and for the world of sports in general,” says Dilson Rassier, Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Education, and the institute’s interim director. 

Adams was the third Canadian to sign the Giving Pledge, established by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Melinda French Gates, for wealthy philanthropists committing to giving away a majority of their wealth to charitable causes. Today, Adams is also the only Israeli Pledger. He is attacking his commitment with his usual fervor, while building an impressive legacy in the international sports community.

Adams, who moved to Tel Aviv with his wife in 2015, owns the Israel-Premier Tech professional cycling team, the first team in any sport from that country to compete at its sport's highest level, the World Tour. He was also the force behind bringing the Giro d’Italia, the world’s second biggest cycling race after the Tour de France, to Israel in 2018 – the first time the race had ever been held outside of Europe. That same year, he established the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute (SASI) at Tel Aviv University (TAU), the first of its kind in Israel, to improve athletic performance by combining best-in-class athletic training techniques with cutting-edge applied scientific research.

The institute at McGill will be a gamechanger. Unlike most sports science centres – which primarily train and evaluate athletes – the new institute’s world-class academic setting brings unique features. The institute will be a hub for interdisciplinary research collaborations among McGill faculties, harnessing the full breadth and depth of expertise to explore crucial questions about the limits of human performance “from the molecule to the whole body,” says Rassier.

“Athletes today are better than they’ve ever been,” says Adams. “I’m interested in, how can they be even better? How can we break barriers to realize individual potential? What can we learn from these athletes to improve health for the rest of us?”

The bulk of Adams’s donation will be used to build and equip a brand-new facility – comprising state-of-the-art testing labs, training suites, research offices, and meeting rooms – adjacent to the Sir Arthur Currie Memorial Gymnasium on the north end of McGill’s downtown campus. Additionally, the gift will support the development of a robust, interdisciplinary research program embedded in the Faculty’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE). 

Established in 1912, it is the longest-running physical education program in Canada. “And it’s one of McGill’s best kept secrets,” says Julie Côté, a former champion runner and professor of biomechanics who recently completed a six-year-term as head of the department. “We have a very strong reputation in basic and applied research, and our researchers are renowned in their areas of expertise, ranging from genetics and molecular biology to physiology, biomechanics, motor control, and nutrition and metabolism, among others.” 

Graduates – like Saldanha, now Adams's strategic sporting advisor – are very proud of their affiliation to McGill’s KPE, says Côté. “There’s a family feel to the program.” The new institute will further enhance the department’s desirability for top students. 

“McGill is the most important university in Canada, in my opinion,” says Adams, whose daughter Sarah graduated from McGill with a bachelor’s degree in physiology in 2007. “I’m very proud to be able to contribute to building its expertise and reputation in sports science.”

Researchers within the new institute will work with some of the world’s top athletes from across a wide variety of sports to understand what makes them so exceptional. 

“What makes them so fast, so strong, so powerful? What gives them such high endurance? How do they cope with such intense physical and mental stress?” says Rassier. “By studying the super healthy and understanding the upper limits of the human body, we will better understand and improve healthy performance and recovery, and healthy living, and aging, in general.” 

Indeed, the institute’s inherent cross-disciplinarity will have far-reaching impacts, well beyond the world of sports. Researchers from different fields have already expressed interest in collaborating; for example, those at McGill’s Schulich School of Music who study performance in musicians. Like athletes, musicians endure intense mental and physical stress and training. And musical performance, like sport, demands endurance, precision, and repetitive movements – all of which can lead to muscle fatigue, injury, or negative effects on mental health. 

“Much of what the institute will study has applications for a multitude of disciplines,” says Adams. “We’ve seen this kind of thing before. The race to the moon, the military, Formula One cars – the research behind these specialized fields helped form the basis for technology we now use in our daily lives.” 

Côté adds, “Many of the students who come through our programs go into technology fields or equipment design – there’s a lot of potential for technological development.”

Importantly, Adams’s transformative investment will also allow McGill’s researchers and students to collaborate with sports science experts across Canada and around the world.

A key feature of the new institute will be a partnership with the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute in Israel. Côté, who has been closely involved in shaping the vision for the McGill institute, says that her team has worked with peers in Tel Aviv to develop complementary programs that will build research capacity and create unique learning and research opportunities for students at both universities. The partnership will allow sports scientists at both institutes to design expanded cohort studies, develop shared graduate programs, and share expertise and facilities – for example, the Israeli institute’s expertise in environmental physiology and its hypoxic hotel, which simulates high-altitude conditions for training and research purposes.

“As Vice Chair of Tel Aviv University, I am excited by the cooperation between McGill and TAU,” says Adams. “I look forward to seeing the two institutes working together. One plus one can actually equal three, if we can collaborate wisely together.”

For Adams, the collaboration between McGill and Tel Aviv University means more than just uniting the two cities he calls home in a shared project. Living in Israel while playing key roles in the international and Israeli sports communities has given him a deeper appreciation for sport as common ground on which to build. The Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute at McGill is a key part of Adams’s vision, and legacy, of bringing people together through sport. 

“Sylvan is a strong proponent of sports, not only for health. He also truly believes in the value of sports in society,” says Rassier. “Having him as a highly involved donor has been a pleasure because he is truly passionate about this project and knowledgeable about the field. He understands the work behind it and the impact it will have.”

“I’m just getting started,” says Adams. “Building bridges, friendships, peace – this is the power of sport.”