Julie Gagné stood anxiously on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago last summer, watching as her son Alexis Lepage prepared for yet another World Championship.
Remortgaging the family’s home to assist her son with living and training expenses seemed like a distant memory for the mother of two from Gatineau, Que. The mountain of debt, financial stress and the fear of losing everything had disappeared, she said. In that moment, her only thought was that Lepage might one day represent Canada at the Olympic Games.
“It’s a choice we make,” said Gagné. “To put our money into the dreams of our children and not into a bigger house or a more luxurious lifestyle.”
In 2014, Sport Canada completed its Status of the High-Performance Athlete Study, a survey looking at Canada’s federally-funded athletes. Conducted every four years, the study revealed that, on average, Canadian athletes spend $13,900 per year more than they earn, or roughly $1,200 a month.
Multiply this by the number of athletes supported by the federal government through Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program — approximately 2,000 — and the deficit faced by Canada’s top amateur athletes is roughly $27.5 million a year, a more than 170 per cent increase from 2009 according to the Sport Canada report. The number is almost identical to the AAP’s annual budget set at just over $28 million.
Lepage is all too familiar with the financial woes of being one of Canada’s top athletes. His total training and living expenses for 2015 were $63,450 — of which his mother paid roughly $22,000. Lepage earned an additional $23,000 in sponsorship funding, while the remaining $21,000 came from the federal government and province of Quebec.
Now 20, Lepage’s situation is far from unique. Financial support to the majority of Canada’s high-performance athletes, upwards of 80 per cent, has remained stagnant since 2004 — the year Canada last introduced an across the board funding increase for national team athletes.
Prior to this increase, athletes received $1,100 per month through the AAP. This was then raised to $1,500 a month in 2004, but has not increased since. With 12 years of inflation factored in, the amount the majority of athletes receive today is the equivalent of taking a 20 per cent pay cut, or roughly $300 a month.
The relative decline in government assistance is exacerbated by the fact that Canadian athletes now spend more time than ever training and competing in order to perfect their sport – an average of 35 hours per week according to the most recent Sport Canada study. Canada’s top athletes have also seen a steep increase in sport-related expenses over the past four years, 21 per cent according to the Sport Canada study. These expenses now average more than $1,400 a month.
The athletes’ bottom line
While Sport Canada did increase funding for a number of athletes – medalists, those with children, as well as Paralympians who require full-time care –following the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the vast majority of Canadian athletes have seen no increases in direct funding in more than a decade, according to data obtained from Sport Canada’s website.
“It’s just crazy to me that funding hasn’t increased in more than 10 years,” said Josh Riker-Fox, a retired modern pentathlete who competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “How are we expected to live and train full time if we’re always worrying about money or having to figure out how to make ends meet?”
Carla Qualtrough, Canada’s Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, is a retired Paralympian and the former president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee. In a written statement provided to Global News, Qualtrough said supporting Canadian athletes has and will remain a top priority.
Describing Canada’s athletes as a “tremendous source of pride and inspiration for all Canadians,” Qualtrough said she will be working with government officials and sport leaders to review available options and ensure Canadian athletes have the necessary resources to compete against the best in the world.
Qualtrough declined to answer whether athletes should receive increases in support tied to the rate of inflation. She also declined to answer if the current rate of $1,500 a month for senior athletes and $900 a month for development athletes is sufficient to meet the high-performance needs of a Canadian athlete.
But as Global News has learned, staff within Sport Canada have felt for years that direct funding received by Canadian athletes is insufficient to meet their needs; and that in many instances, athletes struggle to support themselves financially while continuing to participate in sport.
This is evidenced by the fact in the most recent Sport Canada study, only 24 per cent of Canadian athletes said they received adequate financial support.
Global News has also learned that Sport Canada staff have concerns with the way funds are distributed. For example, when a sport federation wants to support its senior, more experienced athletes, this often comes at the expense of junior and development athletes, who it is hoped, with proper training, will eventually represent Canada at the Olympic or Paralympic Games.
This, too, is illustrated by the Sport Canada study. While athletes over 30 reported a deficit of roughly $5,500 a year, athletes under 20 reported a nearly $30,000 difference between annual income and expenses. The report suggested this difference “may” be the result of Own the Podium funding being directed toward more senior athletes, meaning a greater portion of their sport-related expenses are covered by the government.
Advocates speak out
Ashley LaBrie, executive director of AthletesCAN, an advocacy group representing Canada’s national team members, believes a significant portion of the overall shortfall in funds could be made up if Sport Canada simply increased monthly living and training allowances to levels comparable to those received by athletes in 2004.
This would mean an additional $4,000 per year for each senior level athlete and $2,400 a year for development athletes. The total additional cost would be roughly $5 million a year.
“We’ve lobbied the government quite strongly,” said LaBrie, whose organization met with Qualtrough, as recently as February, and continues to push the government for increases in direct financial support to athletes.
“Athletes are perceived as commodities,” said LaBrie. “But from our perspective, high-performance athletes are employees.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Jackie Buckingham, CEO of Synchro Canada, the country’s governing body of synchronized swimming.
“What we ask these girls to do is basically a job,” said Buckingham. “But it strikes me that not too many of us pay to do our own jobs.”
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Since taking over as CEO of Synchro Canada two years ago, Buckingham has eliminated national team fees for Canada’s top synchronized swimmers. The fees, which had risen to as much as $4,000 per year, represented roughly 15 per cent of the total annual income for the majority of athletes on the team.
“I think it’s a little unfair,” said Buckingham, referring to the team’s training and competition schedule that often exceeds 50 hours per week. “For us to ask so much of them, and then to have them pay for that opportunity in return.”
Having spent many years as a director at Skate Canada, where high-profile athletes such as Elvis Stojko, Joannie Rochette, Patrick Chan, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier had lucrative endorsement deals, Buckingham views whatever limited financial support the swimmers do receive as “sacrosanct,” recognizing that as an organization, it is Synchro Canada’s responsibility to assist athletes in generating the type of revenue they might otherwise earn were they able to work.
“I would hate for an athlete who is otherwise talented to leave the sport because they cannot afford it,” said Buckingham. “To me, this would be the biggest tragedy.”