Despite the funding available, many competitors still find it hard to support themselves while continuing in their sport
During the summer of 2008, Thomas Hall placed first in the sprint canoeing World Cup competition in Duisburg, Germany, securing his spot at the Beijing Olympics, where he would go on to win a bronze medal for Team Canada.
It was a moment he would remember for the rest of his life, and had taken 8 years of hard work to achieve.
Representing Canada on the podium at an international level brought him sponsorship, and a generous bonus from the Canadian Olympic Committee, but proved to not be enough to pay the bills.
Despite retiring from the sport four years ago, Hall is still working on paying off the debt he incurred over his 20 years canoeing.
Elite level athletic competition is very expensive as a result of equipment, training and travel costs. Despite the funding available, many athletes can’t support themselves due to inflation and the rising cost of living.
“It’s no secret that athletes live below the poverty line, so you’re not doing this for the money,” says Hall. “There’s a few that manage to do very well for themselves, but the vast majority of us struggle, and I struggled certainly.”
According to a 2014 report by the Department of Canadian Heritage, the average elite athlete spends 43 per cent of their monthly expenses on sport-related costs. This percentage has been rising consistently since the study began in 1997.
The same report states that the average elite athlete sees a monthly shortage of over $1,200 per month — around $15,000 each year.
“The most money I ever made was about $40,000 the year I won the bronze medal at the Olympics,” says Hall. “But that was a very expensive year for me in terms of travelling and training. I think a lot of athletes are lucky because they’ll stay at home — but if you do have to support yourself, buy all your food and all the rest, it does get very expensive.”
And those expenses become particularly challenging to handle when coupled with the time commitment needed to be an elite athlete in the first place.
John Dunn, a professor in the faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, says, “Sport has gotten to a level now where if you’re not dedicating virtually all your time towards the development and growth of you as an athlete and of your team, it’s almost impossible to succeed at the Olympic level. It almost has to become all-consuming.”
Hall says the time he devoted to his craft made it impossible for him to work part-time on the side while he was still competing and required to travel often for competitions.
Different sports also receive different amounts of funding based on their popularity or medal potential, further complicating many athletes’ finances.
Ashley LaBrie, executive director of AthletesCAN, says this often makes it difficult for athletes in less popular sports to continue competing.
“It’s a vicious cycle, making it much harder for athletes to get that traction to gain the kind of competitive advantages that they need to achieve their best performances,” she says.
The Athlete Assistance Program, introduced in 2004, awards money to the top Canadian athletes in all sports, based on their performance and medal potential, in a process called carding.
There are different categories of carding available, the highest being the senior card granted to athletes who have the ability to place in the top half of their competition or the top eight at an international level.
A senior card equates to $1,500 per month. According to Simon Rivet, a media spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage, average living expenses for these athletes are around $1,460 a month.
Despite the support available, financial stresses can weigh heavily on athletes, something that Kimberley Dawson, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at Wilfred Laurier University, says not many people realize.
“One of the things that people think about elite athletes is the fact that they are so tuned into their sport that they don’t have any other life related stresses, and that’s not the case. Those stresses definitely don’t go away and in fact, they are often times amplified,” she says.
The struggle elite athletes face to support themselves and their families while still competing can be challenging, causing some athletes to train reduced hours or drop out of sport for a few years to save money.
Hall says the money from the government helps alleviate the burden but, according to LaBrie, the amount of carding money has not increased since its introduction.
“The Athlete Assistance Program has not received an increase since 2004,” she says. “Most recently, we worked with the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Councils to request a 20 per cent increase to reflect the consumer price index.”
So far, the general consensus among experts is that there is just simply not enough money to go around, and the funding available is targeted mainly towards the top athletes with medal potential.
“There is more and more targeting or categorization of sports,” says Dale Henwood, President of the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary. “If there isn’t enough to go around and there’s not enough new money, then they’re investing in those people or those sports that consistently perform.”
Considering the caliber of elite sport, Henwood also says the cost is to be expected, but it is not solely up to the government to provide funding for athletes.
“Excellence is expensive. Excellence is long term. Excellence is difficult,” says Henwood. “Do [athletes] need more money? Absolutely, I’m not suggesting they don’t. But it is a choice they’re making. This is a choice in terms of a lifestyle, and it is costly.”
The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editors Note: In a previous verson of this article, it stated that Hall was paying off his debt over his canoeing for a span of 30 years, when in fact it had been 20 years.