Ten-year-old Evan Dunfee was the shortest kid in his class. With his curly red hair and big thick glasses, he didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of what he imagined an athlete would look like.

Instead, he was the “quintessential sort of nerdy kid” who just wanted to be athletic but struggled with sports. That was until one afternoon during a school popsicle stick run, where Dunfee discovered where his true talents lie.

“I found out that I could run the entire lunch hour without stopping and thought that was pretty cool,” says Dunfee.

After joining the school track club and winning his first race, Dunfee made the Canadian Olympic team as a race walker in 2016, setting a Canadian record for the 50 kilometre race walk. But this was not an easy journey. Dunfee, like many other elite athletes, would soon come to realize the struggles of living and training at the Olympic level.

“I think that’s one of the main reasons that people are dissatisfied. It’s called the living and training allowance, and it really isn’t enough to live off of. So there’s really no training allowance side of it.”

What makes-up an athlete’s income?

That level of dissatisfaction has steadily actually improved since 1992. However, according to recently released government data, that dissatisfaction jumped last year. Various athletes and sport officials say that dive may have been driven by a lack of support from governments, corporations and sponsors. This is something that threatens athletes’ wellbeing, as well as Canada’s standing in the sporting world, prompting some athletes to demand more public financing. 

Right now, Olympic athletes receive income from a variety of sources. Support from the government is provided through the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP). This is called carded funding and athletes who receive it must already be among the top 16 competitors in their sport internationally or have the potential to do so. The AAP provides athletes with a set amount of money each month, which tops out at $1,765. They also receive funding from organizations such as Own the Podium, as well as money from corporate sponsorships.

Improvement over time

Historically, the funding Canadian athletes receive hasn’t been enough. Former Olympian Ken Read believes the Canadians who competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, and 1988 Calgary Games were unable to perform to the best of their abilities due to a lack of funding.

Canada didn’t win a gold medal at either Games and Read says there was a feeling that the country could have done better.

“You don’t want a situation where someone says ‘I could’ve been on the podium, but I just didn’t have the resources,'” says Read, a decorated alpine skier.

This frustration has also been reflected in low income-satisfaction numbers among athletes. According to a 2019 report by the Department of Canadian Heritage, only 16 per cent of elite athletes were satisfied with their income when the poll was first conducted in 1992. 

 An array of national flags located at the Canada Olympic Park PHOTO: JOSH WERLE

Athlete satisfaction with income has been on a steady incline ever since that year, which coincided with the creation of the Canadian Athletes Association (now called Athletes CAN), an independent voice that could express the concerns of national athletes. 

Satisfaction continued to increase in the intervening years, with athletes receiving a 25 per cent raise in 1995 and then additional support leading-up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. That support came from increased corporate sponsorship linked to hosting. It also came from a desire to win more medals.

According to Read, Canada knew it needed to perform better than it had in Montreal and Calgary. To improve things, a number of prominent national sport organizations, including the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee, created the Own the Podium program in 2005.

The group provided high-performing athletes with top-up funding so they could focus more of their efforts on training.  As a result, Canadian Olympians won the most gold medals both in our own history, and during the 2010 Olympic Games overall.

This success meant increased sponsorships, media coverage and income for high-level athletes. It was followed by the highest polled income satisfaction rate of 42 per cent in 2014.

Vancouver aftermath

However, this support from the corporate and media world would not last forever. The 2019 report conducted by the Department of Canadian Heritage showed a four per cent drop in elite athlete income satisfaction with mention that “satisfaction with income may be slipping back towards levels found in 2004 (31 per cent) or earlier.” 

Own the Podium’s CEO Anne Merklinger says it has been harder to get corporate sponsorships since 2010.

“Over the last year and a half [and] in the absence of another home game, it’s challenging for us [and] for organizations to be able to sustain and acquire new sponsors,” says Merklinger. 

“The more sponsors a national sport organization gets, that has a very direct impact on their ability to invest in all aspects of their business, not just the high-performance program.”

“It allows for organizations to have even more capacity and increase the breadth of their programming,” says Merklinger. Sponsorships that support the organizations impact funding due to the quality and quantity of programs that they can provide for athletes at a better price. 

It isn’t just athletic programs that have been struggling to gain sponsorships.

“Sponsorships and donations have dwindled substantively since 2010,” says Read. 

Dunfee believes this “might be reflective of the greater sport market, [where there’s] fewer opportunities, fewer additional sponsorships, which would typically mean less exposure, less value, at least perceived value from companies and brands for the athlete.”

“You could tie this all up in the saying that there’s a decreased appetite in Canada for amateur Olympic sports, which I think certainly could be the case.”

This issue is an ongoing problem in the sports community, as fewer sponsorships means there is less money available, and less money available has created major gaps in athletes’ pay. 

“Track and field is the biggest sport in all the Olympic program, but the discrepancy between top and bottom is so extreme,” says Dunfee. “Commonwealth Games 2018, we had Andre de Grasse on our team who has an $11 million-a-year contract with Puma, and we had a girl on the team who collected cans that month to pay her rent. So the discrepancy is just so wide.”

Carded funding issues

With sponsorship opportunities dwindling for both athletes and sports organizations, high-level athletes are forced to rely more heavily on their carded funding provided by the government.

One of the issues with the AAP carded funding is the injury allowance policy. In the past, the AAP would allow an athlete to suffer from one injury and still be able to receive their funding. A second injury however, would have prohibited them from receiving their monthly amounts.

This led to big problems for Jessica MacDonald, one of the top Olympic wrestlers in Canada. 

Jessica MacDonald celebrating after a triumphant victory. PHOTO: EYE:58 PHOTOGRAPHY

Having consistently ranked in the top 10 at several major championships, she should have received carded funding for many years. However, after MacDonald used her only injury card after a reconstructive shoulder surgery in 2014, she was instantly put onto thin ice, as another injury would have prevented her from receiving her funding.

The AAP also constitutes pregnancy as an injury, which means having a child could potentially prohibit you from receiving your carded funding. As a result, after MacDonald had a child in 2016, she lost that funding. 

“I competed at nationals 2017 after having my child and regained my number one spot. They still wouldn’t card me at that point because I had this injury provision.”

After working closely with Wrestling Canada, MacDonald was able to play a key role in developing a new injury policy that allows an athlete to have two injuries, while still being able to collect their funding.

“In a way they fixed it in the sense that now I can have an injury and still have a child,” says MacDonald. “But then if you look at it in the sense of male vs female that allows males to have two injuries and women to only have one injury and one pregnancy.”

More federal money needed

This kind of inequality is one of the problems with AAP funding. But the other is the amount of money athletes receive.

Despite the recent raise to the AAP funding amount in 2017 (the first time it had been increased since 2004), athletes such as MacDonald still believe there is room for change. 

“The cost of living is costing more, and our funding isn’t showing any increase. You would think every year with inflation you would be getting a three per cent increase, but it seems to be that the carding takes a jump, and then it will sit there for 10-15 years,” says MacDonald, adding that the carded funding “is not keeping up with the times.”

According to the Department of Canadian Heritage, the monthly living and training support payments for athletes is $1,765 for eligible national team athletes and $1,060 for eligible development level athletes. Ultimately, the maximum amount of money an athlete is receiving per year is $21,180. 

“There are quite significant team fees, upwards of $45,000-50,000 dollars per year. So if you’re facing a team fee of $50,000 per year and you’re getting $20,000 of athlete funding, that means you have a $30,000 deficit,” says Read, noting that the training fees on top of living expenses are difficult to cover. 

“It just is not that much money,” says Dunfee.

For its part, the Department of Canadian Heritage stresses that “the living and training allowance is intended to offset some, but not all, of the living and training expenses athletes incur as a result of their involvement in high-performance sport.”

However, many have been forced to give up on their dream at the Olympic level due to the fact that the income doesn’t cover their daily needs.

“People say, ‘Oh, well, if you want it enough, you make it work.’ That’s just, unfortunately, not true,” says Dunfee. “There are some athletes who have to leave the sport because there’s nothing they can do about it.”

“It’s always a challenging situation for athletes to choose to pursue a career in high-performance sport,” says Merklinger, who recognizes that every athlete is “in an individual situation.” 

What can be done?

So, what can be done about this income problem? Ultimately, the support for athletes needs to be in co-operation with all moving pieces, including the athletes themselves. 

“If all of the pieces [media support, corporate support and government support] contribute to one another, the outcome will be that we’ll be in a much better place in terms of supporting our Olympic and Paralympic athletes,” says Read.

Dunfee says that the athletes themselves also need to prove what they can bring to the table in order to convince sponsors to support them. 

“It doesn’t really matter how fast you are, especially in a country like Canada, where track and field isn’t that cared about. Just being fast isn’t really enough,” says Dunfee.

Canadian Olympic race walker Evan Dunfee training to compete to the best of his abilities PHOTO: GABE PINEDA

“How much money that you think you deserve is probably deeply rooted in how good of an athlete you think you are, versus what value you create for the company, for the country, for whatever it is,” says Dunfee. “I think if we could have a greater shift to that acknowledgement of seeking value beyond your performance, that’s going to have a great community benefit. Because all of a sudden, you’re putting in way more work to be valuable and contributing to your community.”

But athletes and sports organizations ultimately need an increase in government support. 

This month’s federal budget included

Securing greater investment in Olympic athletes and athlete programs is at the forefront of Merklinger’s mind, saying that supporting athletes is always the end goal.

“The top of [national organizations minds] each and every day is how do we support athletes and coaches in pursuing and obtaining their athletic dreams, their athletic goals? That’s why we work in sport. We’re passionate about sport, and we care about Canada’s athletes and coaches.”