Road To The Olympic Games

Money at Play·Analysis

What do Canadian athletes want for Christmas? Better funding

'Tis the season to be hopeful, and optimism is in the air for Canadian athletes looking for a much-needed boost in funding and better educational opportunities.

Athlete Assistance Program needs a boost

This holiday season, Canadian athletes are hoping they'll soon have access to improved funding and educational opportunities. (Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

'Tis the season to be hopeful, and optimism is in the air for Canadian athletes looking for a much-needed boost in funding and better educational opportunities.

The optimism is a product of potential improvements to the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP) and the launch of new partnerships with Canadian universities.

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, think of the AAP as the financial lifeline of athletes in our country.

Run through Sport Canada, the AAP provides thousands of Canada's high-performance athletes with a monthly income. Often, it's the only reliable source of income they have, and many use it to alleviate the burden of rent, groceries and sport expenses. At a maximum of $18,000 per year, it isn't much, and no monetary adjustments to the monthly allowance have been made in 12 years. 

But the tide could be turning.

A support system for athletes

In its December report, the Canadian parliament's Standing Committee on Finance recommended that funding for the AAP program be increased without decreasing the number of athletes served. It's a small slice of financial hope to carry our athletes through the holiday season.

While most people focus on the stipend, the AAP is about much more than that. It's a support system for our athletes. Besides the monthly income, "carded" athletes get access to professional services designed to enhance their performance (training facilities, sport medicine, physiotherapy, etc.) as well as other life support services (sport psychology, mental health services, etc.). 

Perhaps the greatest long-term benefit of AAP carding is the tuition support an athlete can access. A carded athlete may choose to go to school during her career or defer the tuition support and be eligible for one year of support for every year she's carded.

This is an attractive option for many of Canada's winter athletes whose competition seasons conflict with the school year.

Costs rising, support frozen

But the educational element of the AAP support system has also remained frozen for years, meaning the AAP is doing less and less to actually educate our sporting elite.

With tuition costs rising and support capped at $5,000 a year (for a maximum of five years), you can hardly say that a year of high-performance sport earns you a year of education — a premise I actively pitched to my parents to help encourage the acceptance of my Olympic dreams.

Moreover, athletes have only five years to access deferred tuition support after their retirement. This means that many women who stay in sport longer and are unable to pursue an education during their careers must sometimes choose between starting a family and getting back to school before the timeline expires.

More flexibility

Cue an education initiative announcement by some of Canadian sport's biggest players — the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Sport Canada and the Canadian Sport Institutes Network. A collaboration with nine universities across Canada, the initiative will provide current athletes with more flexible education opportunities while they're training and competing. 

This announcement, combined with the COC's partnership with the Smith School of Business at Queen's University (a commitment to educate up to 1,200 active and former athletes over eight years) has the potential to change how we support our athletes' development during their athletic career — and, importantly, as they transition from active athletes to leaders in different professional fields.

So maybe it's just the eggnog and cookies, but I'm feeling especially joyful and optimistic at the prospect of a more well-rounded, and well-funded, system for our athletes.

About the Author

Deidra Dionne is Director, Business Affairs at Rogers Media. Her unique outlook on the business of sport stems from her experience as a two-time Olympian and Olympic medallist in freestyle skiing aerials, and from her education and experience as a lawyer in the sport and entertainment industry.

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