Canadian Olympians crowdfunding their way to Rio
Elite athletes are launching campaigns to cover everything from training and travel to equipment costs
While watching Canadian athletes compete in Rio de Janeiro, it might be easy to forget how much hard work, time and money it takes to help them reach their Olympic dreams.
Increasingly, many athletes receiving Canadian government assistance are turning to crowdfunding to supplement the cash they need to be successful.
Jamie Broder and Kristina Valjas, a Toronto-based beach volleyball pair, launched a sports-based crowdfunding campaign three years ago to help them fund their trip to Rio.
"We're training five days a week on the sand and then we're also in the gym, so to have enough recovery time to feel really fresh for your training then juggle work was a huge challenge," says Broder. "It definitely takes away from the quality of training you can have as an athlete."
Broder and Valjas and other Team Canada athletes rely on sports-based crowdfunding platforms like Pursu.it and MakeAChamp.
The two websites were started by former Canadian Olympic athletes in the fall of 2012, shortly after the London Games. They are reporting their highest number ever of campaigns for Canadian athletes competing in Rio.
Twenty-four Canadian athletes ran campaigns on MakeAChamp and 10 launched campaigns with Pursu.it to cover everything from training, to travel and equipment costs. By comparison, six Canadian Olympians used MakeAChamp and eight covered some of their costs through Pursu.it at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Crowdfunding has enabled Broder and Valjas to produce several top-five finishes on the volleyball world tour and improve their international ranking from 22nd to the 13th spot in the qualifications for Rio.
Prior to qualifying for their first Olympic Games, these players served as their own sports therapists at competitions, received their coaching over Skype while they were on the road between events, and were working full-time while juggling their full-time training schedules — something that can cost a team almost $60,000 a year.
We're training five days a week on the sand and then we're also in the gym, so to have enough recovery time to feel really fresh for your training then juggle work was a huge challenge.- Jamie Broder , Team Canada beach volleyball player
That's over and above what they get from the Canadian government's carding system for financing international athletes.
"The reason why we decided to do crowdfunding was we needed some extra funding because what we were getting from the carding money wasn't quite enough to cover our living and travel expenses, which we were responsible for," Valjas said.
"The very top athletes, the Michael Phelps and the Usain Bolts, they don't have to worry about that kind of thing," said Josh Vander Vies, president of AthletesCAN, an organization representing Canadian national team athletes.
"When an athlete has to be entrepreneurial and come from behind, sell all their furniture, and knock on doors just to make it to the starting line, and then they have an amazing performance as well, it makes an even better story," said Vander Vies.
As members of Volleyball Canada's national program, both Valjas and Broder receive approximately $18,000 per year from Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program to cover the cost of living and training expenses, this is two-thirds of what UK Sport provides its national team athletes at the same level annually.
Working and training full-time takes a toll
Broder says these funds don't cover the cost of travel or competitions, which they book and pay for out of their own pockets.
In 2013, Broder, 31, was working full time at Lululemon in Vancouver while training full time. "It was taking a huge toll on my body," she says. "It was very exhausting, so having that extra boost of funding allowed me to kind of take a step back from work so I could focus a little bit more on my training and travel more often."
This is an issue that David Ancor, co-founder of Canada-based MakeAChamp, says "helps expose the problem of a lack of funding for amateur athletes."
As an elite judo athlete, the 24-year-old says sports-based crowdfunding sites reach out to the public and make it clear that "yes, we are national team athletes, but we're still not funded 100 per cent."
Canadian sports-based crowdfunding is filling in the gaps of government and grant-based funding for Canadian and international high-performance athletes, he says.
"As a Canadian athlete there's always expenses that are adding up and continue to the more professional you get and the higher level you're playing because you're dedicating even more of your time to it," Broder said.
But as sports-based crowdfunding has grown more common, so has its popularity.
Today, Ancor says crowdfunding has become important for high-performance athletes in order to be competitive.
"This is what the reality is and we're going to deal with it," he says. "We're not going to sit at home and wait for money to come and we're not going to neglect our goals because we don't have funding."
For Broder and Valjas, their Pursu.it campaign raised over $11,000 and was an integral part of their international success, allowing them to "train and compete with the top teams in the world."
Competing on the sands of Copacabana beach as members of Canada's largest Olympic beach volleyball team, both say the funds they raised during their campaign allowed them to train full time, win Canada's first-ever gold medal at the FIVB Beach Volleyball Word Tour last year and qualify for the Olympics.
"It was a big part of our journey," says Broder, who was initially hesitant to ask for money. "I felt like my parents supported me my whole journey and the last thing I wanted to do was ask them to do something more."
Broder and Valjas finished ninth in the Olympic tournament after falling to fellow Canadians Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley in the first-ever all-Canadian Olympic matchup in Rio. Pavan and Bansley would go on to lose the quarter-final to Germany.
We're not going to sit at home and wait for money to come and we're not going to neglect our goals because we don't have funding.- David Ancor , co-founder of MakeAChamp crowdfunding site and elite Judo athlete
Ancor says athletes don't want to beg. Broder and Valjas say they received more than just financial support from their campaign.
"It makes you accountable to your goals and your dreams," says Broder. "I think saying them out loud and committing not only to your partner and your teammate, but also then to all these people who are behind you and supporting you makes you try a little bit harder."
Many Canadian athletes aren't getting enough help from Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program — a governmental fund that supports carded national team athletes based on each sport organization's selection criteria and an athlete's international ranking.
But Vander Vies, a former boccia Paralympian, believes that crowdfunding isn't the whole solution to Sport Canada's lack of funding.
He says crowdfunding "can never replace the Athlete Assistance Program, and in Canada we desperately need an increase to the Athlete Assistance Program."
Today, AthletesCAN is lobbying for a 24 per cent increase in the amount of money this program offers carded athletes to reflect the change in the cost of living since 2004.
"Like a second job, crowdfunding takes a ton of work as well," says Vander Vies. "To do it properly, athletes have to be fully invested in their marketing and crowdfunding strategy."
For some athletes, sports-based crowdfunding can be a distraction from training.
"Even if we were winning or losing on tour, we were hearing from people and they were telling us that they were behind us no matter what," says Broder. "It also gave us that extra push to take our training to a higher level and put more time and energy into that, and that definitely paid off in our game."
Ancor experienced this too. He ran the first campaign with MakeAChamp in 2012 and raised almost $30,000 for his judo career.
"You just don't feel alone anymore," he says.
"You feel like you actually have a community of people that are pushing you and supporting you. Then all of a sudden you also have this bundle of cash that you can literally use for competitions, for the gear that you need, or for the medical expenses that you might have. It's absolutely incredible."