Cost of Living

Olympics delayed means finances frayed for many athletes

July was supposed to mean celebrating athleticism and excellence in sports at the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo. Instead, Olympic hopefuls are facing financial costs of delaying the Games by a year.

Postponing the Games means more than spending the same money but later

Haley Daniels, who still hopes to make it to the Tokyo games in 2021, paddles on the Bow River in Calgary. (Ric Matkowski)

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games were supposed to be underway right now, with hundreds of Canadian athletes training and competing in Japan. But as with so many other things this year, their postponement due to COVID-19 has changed plans and imposed high costs on many of the participants.

While the International Olympic Committee and Japanese taxpayers will face billions of dollars in additional costs, individual athletes also face financial consequences that go beyond simply rescheduling a trip to Tokyo by 365 days.

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CBC Radio's The Cost of Living spoke with several Canadian athletes about the circumstances they face as an Olympic "quadrennial" period of four years suddenly grew into a "quint" without any time to prepare for an extra year of training and fundraising.

Four years turns into five

Athletes such as Calgary's Haley Daniels suddenly found that a four-year budget needed to be stretched and grown into a five-year budget when the coronavirus pandemic forced major changes to the sporting world's schedule in March 2020.

"I'd spent four years looking at how I could spend the last two years of the quad [four-year period] towards the Olympics being completely focused on being an athlete, and now that I only have a year to come up with that budget again," said Daniels.

The women's canoe slalom hopeful must now try to source what she estimated at $90,000 for an extra year of preparation for the Olympic Games while also continuing to train to maintain physical readiness for the sport.

That includes high-cost canoes, which are often made of material such as carbon fibre or kevlar, plus wages for her coaches, training expenses and the typical costs of living such as rent and food.

2020: an Olympic year, until it wasn't

Part of the problem for athletes such as Daniels is that 2020 was an Olympic year, functionally, until March. So the fourth year of her budget was being spent accordingly until suddenly, it had to last an extra year, leaving less financial runway.

Daniels had previously fundraised, in part, by auctioning off painted canoe paddles and hopes to do the same in future, but hasn't determined her next financial moves yet other than trying to hustle for more sponsors.

But savings from not travelling to Tokyo in 2020 are not going to be enough to make up for budgetary adjustments

The athletes's for the postponed Tokyo Olympics was built to house 11,000 people and be sold after the Games ended. (Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

"When we do begin to travel … we're going to have to quarantine when we leave the country and quarantine when we come home. So I'm going to be investing in gym equipment that I can travel with, probably going to have to travel with a bike or rent a stationary bike to stay in our hotel room that we quarantine in," said Daniels.

It's not an option to completely avoid travel for Olympic hopefuls once restrictions ease; other international competitions leading up to the Olympic Games will also be restarting and many athletes need to travel for training purposes as well. 

These all factor into additional, unexpected costs.

Stipends aren't always enough

Many athletes get a stipend from Sport Canada, including funding from the federal government. But to qualify, you have to have already made your mark in competitions or qualified for the Olympics previously. That money ranges from a little more than $1,000 a month, to less $1,800 a month.

It won't and cannot pay all the bills Olympic athletes face, which is where corporate sponsorships can make a huge difference.

Larger sponsors such as RBC, Toyota or Petro-Canada have pledged to continue support. But smaller businesses that often provide donations to individual athletes have, anecdotally, dropped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada's Mark de Jonge, pictured here at the Pan Am Games in 2015. (Aaron Lynett/Canadian Press)

This could include restaurants supplying meals, local sporting goods retailers providing equipment — or even smaller, local car dealerships providing sponsorship to a favoured hometown hero. Several athletes told The Cost of Living these types of donations have been harder to come by in recent months.

"I've kind of experienced that there's a feast and a famine when it comes to a four-year cycle of sport. I've gone through the three years, well now the four years of famine, and there's no feast," said Mark de Jonge, a Halifax-based canoe and kayak competitor. 

de Jonge, who won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, explained that the years in between Olympic Games can be drier in terms of sponsors, but the payoff usually happens at this point in the cycle. Not this time.

"I think we can make it through based on the assumption that you're gonna have some tough years ahead of you but you should get some sponsors in 2020 and it'll kind of work itself out. So that's not happening," said de Jonge, who also said he will make it to Tokyo in 2021 regardless — even if he has to use his personal credit card.

Meet a Calgary athlete who missed out when the last Olympics were cancelled

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With a lot of Olympic dreams put on hold this summer, Diane Jones-Konihowski helps us look back at another games Canadian athletes didn't get to attend 40 years ago in Moscow.

Even with sponsorship, costs have escalated

Olympians such as Erica Wiebe, 2016 gold medallist in wrestling, have maintained their expected levels of sponsorship overall. But costs have changed and escalated in many ways for athletes like her.

Canadian wrestling champion Erica Wiebe is pictured in a 2018 match. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

"We're not going to be in ready mode for the next 12 months. We're kind of managing what we're able to manage right now. Like we're not training in a facility because, nothing's open," said Wiebe in an interview with The Cost of Living

Wiebe, based in Calgary, is one of many athletes having to spend extra money on dedicated facilities to make sure physical distancing is possible.

As well, travelling costs will go up because of quarantine measures resulting in extra time spent in foreign locations. In a sport like wrestling, its necessary to sometime travel or even import competitors to practice with because — frankly, according to Wiebe — you run out of people to practice with at the highest levels when you are limited to athletes in one city.

This adds up to increased costs in a year most athletes weren't expecting to pay for at all.

Olympians aren't all rich, says expert

According to one expert in the Olympic games, many Canadians may assume Olympians can weather the storm financially because they have personal resources.

"There's a misconception out there, in the general public, people think well it's an Olympian, they've got lots of money. and it's just not the case," said Angela Schneider.

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The director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University in London, Ont., said that it's just a minority of athletes with enough personal wealth to weather this postponement without both financial and mental-health consequences.

"Also in this kind of situation, they're going to be going back to their parents, and their parents are hurting. Across the board, people are hurting financially," said Schneider.

Written and produced by Anis Heydari.
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