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Drowning in debt, Canadian Olympic athletes demand a monthly increase in the amount of “cards” in the federal budget

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Olympic bobsledder Cynthia Appiah is thousands of dollars in debt for racing her sled and getting to the competition.

Her Canadian teammate Melissa Lotholz recently requested free accommodation at a church while competing in Lake Placid, New York.

Olympic rowing champion Andrea Proske says she continues to pay off debt and her mother planted an extra garden to grow fruits and vegetables to meet her caloric needs when Proske trained and raced with a tight budget.

As the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games approach in Paris, Canadian athletes are demanding a $6.3 million increase for the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP), informally known as “carding” money. », in the federal government’s budget of April 16.

A monthly check for $1,765 – $1,060 for a development-level athlete – goes to cover living expenses and competition fees that their sport’s governing body doesn’t cover.

“Cards are my main source of income,” Appiah said. “It’s about the only thing that I know will be sustainable throughout an entire year, in and out of competition.”

More than 1,900 athletes in 90 sports are eligible for the AAP, which provides other financial supports such as tuition and child care.

Athletes saw their AAP increase in 2017 by $265 per month, or 18 percent, in the first increase since 2004.

The latest request, which would represent an 18.8 per cent increase, is independent of a joint request from the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees for a $104 million injection into the sports system.

However, one goes hand in hand with the other, as athletes cover costs that their national federations cannot cover. Appiah pays riders $10,000 for his sled and still has $6,000 on his credit card from his trips to the World Cups in Latvia and Austria last year.

The 33-year-old lives with her sister in Toronto “because I can’t afford to live alone in a city like Toronto.”

When Appiah goes to the bobsled team’s training center in Calgary, she says she “couch surfs” and drives a 2007 car with rusty wheel arches that has traveled 360 000 kilometers.

The AAP, worth $21,000 per year, is the main source of income for many athletes and can also include provincial grants, prize money or sponsorships.

Appiah says earnings from Ontario’s Quest For Gold program, his status as an RBC Olympic athlete and the sponsorships that come and go from year to year earn him about $28,000 a year.

“A lot of people I’ve had this conversation with in terms of funding seem to have the idea that Canadian Olympic athletes live in luxury. There is this illusion that we are getting very lucrative sponsors,” Appiah said.

“André De Grasse, Christine Sinclair, they’re the rare ones to have these million-dollar contracts.”

Her teammate Lotholz wants to regain her World Cup status after taking a year off from racing to graduate from the University of Alberta.

That meant competing on the North American Cup circuit last winter and “paying out of pocket for almost everything except training,” she said.

The two-time Olympian says she stayed at a Lake Placid church for free while competing in her final event of the season. Lotholz welcomes the athletes’ additional request to index the AAP to the rate of inflation.

“Literally every penny counts. It all definitely makes a difference,” said the 31-year-old from Barrhead, Alta. “I also really appreciate in this request, that they also ask that the amount be variable so that it increases with inflation.”

But there is no indication that an increase in the PAA is planned in the federal budget.

“While Budget 2023 announced a refocusing of government spending, as part of its ongoing commitment to athletes, this government has strategically reallocated resources within the Sport Support Program to ensure that direct funding of athletes through of the Athlete Assistance Program will not be affected,” indicates a government press release. office of Canadian Sports Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Proske was a member of the women’s eight that won Olympic rowing gold in Tokyo. The 37-year-old from Langley, British Columbia, is now vice-president of AthletesCan, an association representing national athletes.

“In women’s rowing, especially as a high-level gold medalist, I put myself and my husband in debt trying to stand in the middle of the podium with the maple leaf on my chest,” Proske said .

“We are not professional athletes. We are amateur athletes. Many of our sports don’t go very well with sponsorships. Taking rowing as an example, I can’t sell sponsorship space on my boat, I can’t put a logo on my visor, I’m limited in the number of logos I have.

Athletes know how to spend a dollar, Proske said, but there is a breaking point.

“We don’t always have control over where we train. Many of these training centers are in very expensive cities,” she said. “Being an athlete compared to a normal human is also very expensive. I was eating 4,000 calories a day. Many men consumed 10,000 calories per day.

Canada has a network of seven sports institutes. CSI Pacific campuses are located in Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler, British Columbia.

CSI Ontario is headquartered at the Pan American Sports Center in Toronto. CSI Calgary is aimed at many winter sports athletes.

Vancouver costs an average of $2,181 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, Victoria $1,839, Toronto $1,961 and Calgary $1,695, according to the January 2024 rental report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

In the ski resort of Whistler, which has Canada’s only luge, bobsleigh and skeleton track since Calgary closed, a one-bedroom apartment costs north of $3,000 a month.

Scarcity of resources contributes to a less safe sports system, Appiah said.

“In this conversation about sports safety, athletes often put themselves in vulnerable positions because that’s the only option they have, and finances play a big role in that,” she said. “The AAP is, for most people, their only source of income, so you make decisions that no sane person would actually make.

“If we had this 18 percent increase and we were also tied to inflation, most of us could live like normal human beings. »


This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2024.

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