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Weak Canadian dollar hurting Olympic athletes

The falling Canadian dollar presents major challenges for the country's Olympic athletes, who spend the majority of their time training and competing in the United States and Europe.

Could have huge impact on training, competition budgets

Canada's Alex Harvey, one of the country's top cross-country skiers, spends most of his winter competing in Europe, where the Canadian dollar doesn't go as far as it used to. (The Associated Press)

If the frail Canadian dollar has you reconsidering your next trip, it's having the same limiting effect on many of the national sport organizations responsible for the country's top athletes.

"The dollar's not helping, there's no question of that," said Bruce Robinson, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association (CFSA), which has many of its 54 national team athletes outside of Canada around 10 months of the year.

This group includes Olympic champions such as moguls skier Justine Dufour-Lapointe, and slopestyle skier Dara Howell.  

"When you have a 30 to 40 per cent premium on the dollar and you're spending 25 per cent of your time in the United States in particular, that has a significant impact on our budgets," said Robinson.

One Canadian dollar was worth about 69 cents U.S. as of Jan. 20, hovering near a 12-year low, and down 18 per cent compared to the same time last year.

Organizations hit hard

With two years before the next Winter Olympics, the CFSA views this as a critical period. They'll try to save money in other areas, not their high performance program. 

"This is not the time to try to scale back," said Robinson, who has a high performance budget of $4.4 million, one of the country's highest, based on seven medals in Sochi.  

Smaller sports like cross-country skiing are hit harder.

"We're in a bit of a tough spot here," said Tom Holland, the sport's Director of High Performance.

Though he has only four full-time World Cup athletes, Holland thinks his high performance budget of $1.4 million might not be enough this year.

Similar to many winter sports, Holland's team spends a lot of time in Europe, where one euro costs $1.59 Cdn.

"My big concern is where is this going to lead us if it stays like this next year because it's a huge impact," he said, suggesting the money could just run out. "You can easily get to a point where you say, 'That's as far as we can go, we gotta go home now.'"

Both Robinson and Holland are also worried about developmental athletes.

"This has a double effect," says Robinson, noting that families are also having to pay about 20 to 30 per cent more out of their own pockets to travel to events.

The development athletes — still working their way up the ranks, trying to establish themselves — can pay up to $30,000 out-of-pocket per season.

"If you're not going up, it's pretty easy to throw the towel in," says Holland of this group. "It doesn't just impact the people going to Europe, it impacts your whole program."   

Not totally bleak

Some sports actually benefit from the weak Canadian dollar.

Golf Canada operates a robust amateur program paid for by a portion of the title sponsorship money from their RBC Canadian Open. RBC pays $8 million US for the rights. About $1 million of that makes up the majority of Golf Canada's amateur and developmental budget.  

Beach volleyball player Ben Saxton keeps his tour winnings in U.S. dollars.

"It's better to have American money right now," said Saxton, who with teammate Chaim Schalk is well-positioned to qualify for Rio 2016. They live and train in California up to four months out of the year.

Similarly there is evidence that the weak Canadian dollar demands resourcefulness from the hard-pressed sports.

"You can't give up," said Holland. "We're mandated to chase medals and get to the Olympics. This can lead to really tough decisions."

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