Olympics Summer

The crippling costs of competing

It is clear that few elite Olympic athletes have the financial wherewithal to train with a clear mind.
Gary Reed of Canada prepares to compete during the Men's 800m heats at the 2006 World Athletics Championships in Osaka, Japan. ((Andy Lyons/Getty Images) )

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Victoria’s Gary Reed left Osaka, Japan, last September with the IAAF world championship 800m silver medal tucked away in his carry-on luggage.

The 26-year-old came within one 100th of a second of being crowned world champion. He has a real shot at winning the Olympic Games. Should that happen the nation will celebrate, he’ll receive a congratulatory phone call from the prime minister and he will be a much sought-after spokesperson.

But to get to the Olympics it has been necessary for Reed to live in a rent subsidized apartment. He is not alone in the financial hardship athletes face while training full time.

The 2007 Pan American 5000m Champion Megan Metcalfe has been circulating an email pledge form asking for donations to help her in her quest for an Olympic berth. Why are our athletes left to beg for support?

Athletics Canada, which governs track and field in this country, submits a list of athletes to Sport Canada on an annual basis. Some have met the strict criteria to receive a monthly cheque of up to $1,500 -- that’s $18,000 annually. Reed is among them. He also has a meagre shoe endorsement contract with Nike Canada.

Living at poverty level

He is a professional athlete, someone a generation of younger athletes can revere. But it is clear that few elite Olympic athletes have the financial wherewithal to train with a clear mind.

"Gary is a good example," says his coach Wynn Gmitroski, "He decided he was coming here (to Victoria’s National Middle Distance Training Centre). He had no support at all. He was looking for a job. I don’t know where he was sleeping.  I don’t even know if he had a bed at the time. I know that first year was a real struggle. He was carded but basically living at poverty level or below."

It’s a similar story in Edmonton where Tyler Christopher, the 2008 IAAF World Indoor Champion, has had to survive financial hardship that would have crippled a man of lesser fibre.

When he arrived in Edmonton to train with coach Kevin Tyler he slept on the floor of a friend’s living room and took food that had been left in bins for the homeless. He worked several jobs at all hours of the day and night to make ends meet. The 24-year-old hasn’t forgotten. He has opened his home to another Olympic hopeful, sprinter Emanuel Parris, who is part of a tightly knit training group.

Financial impediments are encountered at an early age when athletes start making national teams. John Carson, the father of Cambridge distance runner Lindsay Carson, cries out for additional funding for the developing athletes who need experience on the world stage.

Shiny bag and uniform

"Every time you make a national team Athletics Canada will send a nice shiny bag and a uniform," says Carson. "Lindsay now has five. You are very excited at first, until the invoice follows very shortly thereafter."

Both the United States and Great Britain have a policy of fully funding every athlete who dons their national vest.

Carson estimates his family has had to find $15,000 over the past three years ever since his daughter starting representing Canada at international championships. When she earned a place on the Canadian Junior cross country team bound for the IAAF World Championships in Mombasa, Kenya, last year it cost them $4,000.

"We had a leaking roof back in 2005," Carson recalls. "It was either come up with $3,000 for our daughter to race at the world youth championships in Morocco or fix our leaky roof. We lived with the leaky roof for another year."

The Carsons have held fundraising bake sales and barbecues outside supermarkets to raise money. They have applied for the Ontario government’s Quest for Gold grants and municipal grants as well as support from Lindsay’s track club. But John Carson says you can only go to the well so many times. The world junior track and field championships are in Poland in July but Lindsay Carson, who has just completed her first year of studies at the University of Guelph, balks at the cost. 

"It’s awful when you get to that level and you have to pay to be on the team," says Kevin Dillon the father of Marcus Dillon, the Canadian junior 3,000m steeplechase champion. His son has represented Canada in the world junior championships in Beijing and Japan.

Government funding

"Obviously the money has to come from somewhere. It’s awful. We (Canadians) compete in so many sports that (Sport Canada) can’t be expected do come up with funding for all of it. We do well in a lot of sports that nobody else plays. Track? Everybody plays."

The dilemma is clear. Athletes definitely could use government funding as they rise to the top. In addition to their basic sustenance, they require money for training camps, physiotherapy and travel. If they don’t have a shoe contract they need equipment. Gary Reed spent several weeks at high altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, last month. Many other international stars were there at the same time.

"The issue is more complicated than people think," says Kevin Tyler, who in addition to coaching world ranked athletes such as Tyler Christopher, Adam Kunkel and Carline Muir, is the director of the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre. "I think in principle we would like to see all those teams fully funded, from world youth championships to world juniors. But you have to follow where the money comes from.

"We need to get our high-performance model in order to support other programs. The other stream is corporate. And most of the corporations are interested in high-performance athletes and medals and performance. The better our results at the international level, the more money available from both streams -- Athletics Canada and corporate."

Tyler says that Athletics Canada’s objective of winning two to three medals in Beijing will possibly bring in more money the following year. But there are also fears that there could be further cutbacks.

Reebok shoe contract

Kevin Sullivan has been Canada’s top middle distance runner for the past 15 years, highlighted by a superb fifth place finish in the Sydney Olympics 1,500m final. He attended the University of Michigan on a track scholarship. Since then the 34-year-old has benefited from both carding money and a lucrative Reebok shoe contract.

"I attribute a lot of my success to that decision to go to the states," he says. "I don't think I would be where I am today if I had stayed in Canada." And that brings up an interesting point. While there are some financial incentives for athletes to attend Canadian universities, the majority of our top juniors elect to go south to NCAA institutions.

Wynn Gmitroski, Gary Reed’s coach, would like to see athletic scholarships in Canada to help build the national program.

"We have a couple of training centres but it’s not as if people are encouraged to come and train there," he reveals. "If someone who is good comes here they already have the support, in many cases. But I can’t go out and recruit four or five new kids to come here because we have no means to support them. They have to pay their own shot. We have no budget to take them to the competitions, so it makes no sense."

Gmitroski points to a 75 per cent drop-out rate in athletics among high school graduates. There doesn’t seem much incentive to continue. And that could severely cripple Canada’s future Olympic track and field program.

"If they would take the health-care budget and take one per cent and put it into prevention through sport and exercise our problems would be solved," Gmitroski concludes. "But that doesn't buy votes for the politicians."

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