After more than a decade of stagnant support, the specifics on the federal budget increase to the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP) were announced last week.
Eligible, or carded, athletes will see a monthly increase from $1,500 a month to $1,765 and development athletes (a second form of carding for up-and-coming athletes) will see monthly cheques move from $900 to $1,060 a month. Moreover, athlete tuition support, an additional benefit for carded athletes, is increasing from $5,000 per athlete per carding cycle, to $5,500.
Now, anytime you get a raise it's reason to celebrate. Canadian athletes are reacting as you'd expect, with gratitude and appreciation.
"Any increase is much appreciated," said Olympic boxer Mandy Bujold. "Many athletes like myself depend on AAP funding, it is my only significant source of consistent income. Groceries, gas, living expenses — it all adds up."
But how grateful should athletes be before saying the increase isn't enough? Is it too early to say an 18 per cent increase after 13 years of static support doesn't even amount to an increase matching Canada's inflation rate.
If they can't, let me. The real win for Canadian athletes will be when AAP funding is adjusted every three years to reflect Canadian inflation.
Former support recipient
Admittedly, I am biased. Not only was I a recipient of AAP funding throughout my freestyle skiing career, the tuition support helped me pursue a portion of my education. But I also had a front-row seat to some of the lobbying and advocacy as part of my role representing Canadian athletes' interest on the Canadian Olympic Committee's board of directors. During a four-year stretch, I acted as chair, and then vice-chair, of the COC athlete commission.
The experience was my first (and most formative) professional experience. Voted in by my peers in 2010, my voice is what connected boardroom decisions to the athletes affected by those decisions.
I treated my responsibility with the respect and the vigour it deserved, understanding that when an athlete voice, like mine, was afforded an audience with the power to make changes to the system, it needed to be heard.
The voice of the athletes has long been saying that an increase to AAP is needed. That living, eating and training on a monthly $1,500 budget is a challenge. Through a collective effort, athlete advocacy groups like the COC athlete commission, the CPC athlete commission, Athletes CAN and Sport Matters have continuously lobbied sport leaders, media, and elected officials.
Letters were written and countless presentations were made. The asks weren't big — an adjustment to reflect inflation since the last increase back in 2004 and a commitment to readjust the amount every three years accordingly.
This week's announcement represented a big truth to me; change can take time and rarely does it reflect a big step forward. It's more like a shuffle in the right direction. But after more than a decade, progress is still progress.
"I'm proud of the work the athlete community has done to get to this point but we will continue to pursue our goal," said Jeff Christie, a retired Olympic luger and now chair of the COC AC commission. "I've always believed in trying to help change the system to ensure it's in a better place than when I was here, to me, that means ensuring AAP is adjusted every three years to reflect inflation changes so athletes behind me don't have to continue this narrative."
Targeted funding system
Whereas some will want to debate the government's role in supporting Canadian athletes in any capacity, the fact is millions of dollars are spent funding sport in this country. For the Canadian high-performance system, our values have shifted to largely embrace a more targeted funding system.
The adapted framework heavily emphasizes Olympic medals and supports sport programs that produce as much. It continues to trend toward supporting programs with individual medal contenders but does little to directly support the athlete pay the rent or buy groceries.
AAP carding has, and continues to be, instrumental in ensuring thousands of athletes, many from non-targeted sports, receive reliable support to train, compete and when they are ready, pursue an education. It has long been a program that looks less at the medal count and more at ensuring each athlete supported is equipped to pursue athletic excellence and supported enough to transition from leader on the playing field, to leader in our community.