Thursday, August 22, 2002

The Pathetic State of Funding for Sport in Canada

This article originally appeared in the Premier Edition of Ottawa Outdoors magazine.

In March of this year 35 athletes travelled to Ireland to represent Canada at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Twenty-three of these athletes were self-funded. Canada, for some reason, cannot find the money to send athletes to a world championship.

I would think that when Canada selects athletes to compete internationally representing their country the athletes would be funded by Canada. At the federal level, our government can find money to fund an irrelevant event such as the Francophonie Games and also pay the expenses of athletes from other countries to come to Canada for the event. Not only does Canada absorb this cost but we are also paying for the record number of athletes who defected during the games and have now become Canada’s financial responsibility. The federal government can also find the funds to throw a “party” for our winter Olympians. At the same time as this party is being quickly organized and the money found to spend on it, our cross-country team is financing their own way to Ireland. Who sets these priorities?

Some athletes are fortunate enough to find corporate sponsors to assist them with their expenses. This is how the government sees fit to reward these companies for their sponsorship: Once selected for a national team for a major Games athletes must sign a contract prohibiting them from profiling their sponsor(s) for a period preceding, during and after the Games. The government should not be able to have it both ways; those who support the athlete should receive the profile. This fact may be a major reason as to why corporate sponsors are so hard to come by.

Our athletes also need support in terms of training and competition facilities. Ottawa, for example – Canada’s Capital and the home of Athletics Canada, the national sports governing body for track and field – has no indoor training facility. The federal government can find money to help professional football teams with stadium costs in Montreal, has promised money for construction of football stadiums in Quebec City and Halifax if the CFL expands there, spends millions on advertising in pro sport facilities such as the Corel Center and Jetform Park, Ottawa’s minor league baseball stadium, but is nowhere to be seen when it comes to an indoor track facility. The City of Ottawa, which paid for the building of Jetform park, a facility that is only used for professional baseball, has over 40 ice surfaces and is looking at building more but is not committed to building one indoor track.

At the corporate level, Canada is far behind other countries in supporting amateur sport. With some exceptions, corporate Canada prefers to support mercenary sport where the average athlete’s salary exceeds one million dollars. At the individual level the story seems to be the same. At a single NHL hockey game – and each team plays over 80 games to get to a playoff system where over half the teams make it – individuals collectively spend an amount that exceeds one-half of Athletics Canada’s yearly budget! Corporations collectively spend even more in a single night but when it comes to supporting our amateur athletes most individuals and corporations cannot “afford” it.

The Athens Olympics are two short years away. Canada should have already made major increases in support of our athletes aspiring to these games. We can expect, instead, to see a lot of talk and photo opps in the 6 months prior to the Games when it will be too late to help our athletes develop.

A recent letter to the Toronto Star made the following point:
“The sad fact is that any international success our athletes have enjoyed has occurred in spite of the federal government and the Canadian private sector. We do, however, lead the world when it comes to commissions studying the state of amateur athletics. I dare say that if half the cash that we spend on government studies on the state of amateur sports was simply paid out to our athletes, then more of our young people would be inclined to devote years of their lives to the Olympic dream.”

Our athletes who compete for the love of their sport deserve better.

It’s time for Canadians to say, “Show me the money!” when it comes to funding our athletes.

Ken Parker is a longtime runner, coach, race organizer and his company, Sirius Consulting Group, has been a sponsor of triathlete Sharon Donnelly, 1999 Pan American Games Champion and Sydney Olympian, since 1997 and also sponsors several local age-group teams.