Local athletes left with few affordable options for training after financial support removed in wake of restructuring
Natasha Jackson thought Calgary had it all.
She made the move from her home in Los Angeles almost three years ago, specifically to train under the guidance of renowned multi-events coach Les Gramantik and his group of high performance athletes.
Now, as Jackson enters her final two years before Olympic trials, Gramantik is out of a job – and due to recent changes by Athletics Canada – Jackson says that she feels that she and other athletes are being cut off from their local programs and encouraged to move.
“Elite track and field athletes need support in all areas. We are not like hockey or other team sports that are highly paid for what they do,” says Jackson in an interview.
“All facility, physical therapy and coaching support that I did have in prior years has been taken away as of the start of this year,” she adds.
A new direction
The national governing body for Canadian track and field, Athletics Canada, announced last October a new plan to improve sports development nationwide.
Prior to Dec. 31, local facilities at the University of Calgary held “sport centre” status and were financially supported to provide athletes with track and weight room time.
Today, U of C’s facilities no longer have the title of “sport centre,” meaning the financial support Jackson and her teammates needed is gone.
Photo by Megan MacKayThe press release from Athletics Canada states that major outcomes of the plan include a shift away from multiple training centres across the nation, to two high performance hubs located in Vancouver and Toronto.
“Athletes will have the option of staying and training in a hub or visiting on a pre-established timetable with their personal coach,” the release states.
Peter Davis is the director and founder of Sports Performance Management, and contributed to the research that informed the new plan.
He consults with various national sport ministries and Olympic teams all over the world, but says his review of the Athletics Canada system was his most extensive to date, and involved interviews with over 70 people.
“With seven official centres across the country people were asking, is that too many? Not enough?” Davis says. “Is this system as efficient as it could be?”
Davis says the new hub system will offer athletes a more consistent development pathway.
“It creates a systematic way for athletes to move up the chain in a logical progression. All of the support they need will be together and easily accessed through the hubs,” he notes.
But local coaches and athletes, including Jackson, are feeling doubt that the plan will benefit them.
A big loss to the track community
Particularly concerning was the fact that Les Gramantik, the former coach at the Calgary training centre, lost his job in the wave of high performance centre closures.
“Losing my contract on a short notice was hard to take,” says Gramantik. “They took away my passion and my profession, a profession that I am very good at.”
He adds that after 35 years of working for the organization, he is “very disappointed about this treatment.”
Photo by Megan MacKay “There is a huge community of athletes here, and it is such a healthy place to learn and grow with other athletes, even in other sports,” athlete Jackson penned on her blog. “Now it is all being taken away.”
There are nine track clubs in the city recognized by the Calgary Track Council, each hosting athletes of all ages, events and levels.
The local collegiate track community is also thriving, with the University of Calgary Dinos placing third at the recent CanWest meet in November, and landing the top spot at the Golden Bear Open in January.
Jackson says she also took to her blog to voice how she and her teammates “were feeling the effects in some serious ways.”
Her primary complaint stemmed from the reallocation of funding and resources to the hub cities, leaving Calgary — a thriving community for high performance track and field athletes with a sanctioned sport centre — out in the cold.
“The major thing that affects me and my training group here in Calgary is that the Sport Institute is no longer able to support us,” says Jackson. “This is due to a judgment made by Athletics Canada that Calgary’s facilities don’t meet the criteria of ‘world class.’”
She adds that Calgary athletes have been “cut off from the program and are encouraged to move to a hub.”
Caroline Erdhardt, a long and triple jumper from London, Ont., saw the blog post and wrote one of her own in response.
Erdhardt reminds Jackson that “although your new situation will not be ideal, it is also not unique.”
“Your impending new circumstances in terms of not having a paid coach, financial support, or not being a centre is the same situation that almost every other track and field athlete in Canada has already been dealing with for years,” she writes.
Erdhardt and her teammates, high caliber athletes similar to that of Jackson and her Calgarian colleagues, currently train in a facility that’s a far cry from a high performance hub.
“Our tight-cornered, four-lane track from the ’70s encloses a hockey rink,” Erdhardt writes. “When we aren’t dodging hockey players who are crossing the track or steering clear of incoming hockey pucks, we are doing our best to stay warm between runs or jumps.”
She admits that even living in Ontario, the new hub strategy most likely will not have a direct impact in her athletic endeavors.
“My training conditions are not ideal, but I have a fantastic group of training partners and a few amazing coaches, so I would not be willing to relocate simply to train at a better facility,” she writes.
She also emphasizes that she has commitments outside of athletics that make moving closer to a hub difficult and impractical.
Photo by Megan MacKay“I go to school full-time in London, train for 4-5 hours a day and work to support myself,” she says.
Athletics Canada representatives did not respond to requests for a comment, but Ed Moore, director of the Calgary Track Council and board member at Athletics Alberta, remarks that from a technical standpoint, some aspects of the strategy do make sense.
“They have combed through the results of the past dozen or so years, and regardless of how much support is offered to Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Halifax, or Victoria, almost all carded athletes come from Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver,” he says.
A carded athlete is someone who has applied for and been accepted to the Athlete Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance and tuition support from the federal government program administered by Sport Canada.
Change necessary for progress
What everyone seems to agree on, is that change is inevitable for the future of Canadian track and field.
This new strategy is only one facet of a complete makeover of Athletics Canada as an organization, with coach education and grassroots development being two other areas currently undergoing review.
Though many are skeptical about the practicality of the new hub system, other aspects of the plan have Athletics Canada seeing success and support.
“We are on the right track by hosting National Track League meets that bring in some elite athletes from other countries,” says athlete Erdhardt. “They give our top Canadian athletes a chance to perform against the best without having to travel.”
For now, all that athletes and coaches can do to wait as the further stages unfold and hope to see the promised improvements.
“This new hub system may not be the best, but it may be a step in the right direction,” Erdhardt concludes in her blog post. “I think it’s great that this issue has been brought to light… so athletes, coaches, Athletics Canada… let’s keep talking.”
Do you think the shift away from multiple training centres to two high performance hubs is a good idea?