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‘It could bite us in the ass’: Canadian sports feel dire effects of cuts, inflation

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CANMORE – Canada’s top biathletes and staff are doing everything they can to save a buck following significant budget cuts, which, performance-wise, “could bite us in the ass.”

With a 30 per cent cut to Biathlon Canada this year, the senior national team is “scraping by” during what’s been a challenging 2023, said senior national team head coach Justin Wadsworth.

The loss of funding “severely” impacted training camps this year.

“I would say we’re in a bad spot financially,” said Wadsworth. “Athletes have been paying for all the training camps on their own. [Biathlon Canada] just [doesn’t] have the funding, unfortunately, so our athletes have been extremely resilient in the face of these budget cuts.”

Having coached the Canadian and U.S. cross-country ski teams, Wadsworth said he’s never experienced budget cuts like the one from this year. 

“I would just put a shout-out to anybody, any corporation, any sponsor that wants a really great team to invest in, it’s almost like buying a professional sports franchise at this point in time,” said Wadsworth.

For the 2023-24 season, Own The Podium, by way of Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee, is distributing $350,000 to Biathlon Canada – the second least of any sport next to men’s ice hockey ($225,000). 

Funding by Own The Podium rewards performance-based results at major sporting events such as the Olympics, Paralympics or world championships. Money distribution is based on the probability of success and is not distributed equally.

Canmore-based biathletes have come close to podiuming at the 2022 Olympics and in recent world cups, but just missed the mark. Those great results were outweighed by poorer results outside the top-30 as the national organization now tries to find stability with a younger generation.

“Every time we get close to the Olympics, the Canadian public wants us to be the best in the world, but we have to be realistic,” said Wadsworth. “We’re not getting funding like our counterparts in Europe.

“It’s not all about money, for sure, but money has an impact on performance, especially when you’re really cutting your budget.”

On top of budget cuts, Canadian athletes often pay their own tour fees. Top biathletes, for example, pay up to $15,000 CAD to race overseas each season, taking more from an already depleted wallet.

“Athletes are paying for just about everything and yeah, it’s kind of sad,” Wadsworth added. “A lot of sports are going through the same thing. Biathlon is not on its own.”

For Canmore’s Matthew Strum, an aspiring world cup biathlete, he’s been able to offset costs to pursue a high-level athletic career by living with his mom. 

With Canmore being the spot where both biathlon and cross-country ski national teams are based out of, it’s a “bonus” for the 27-year-old biathlete to live in one of Alberta’s most expensive communities, essentially rent-free. However, like pretty much every amateur athlete in town, Strum works a part-time job and trains.

“A lot of [athletes] are moving here away from their families and having to pay high, high rent, as well as pay their team fees and any other kind of expenses that come up,” he said. “I’ve not heard of anyone who is, like, completely, you know, like solo or completely unsupported by family members.”

The nature of the beast for Olympic hopefuls is that it’s a long, tough road financially and that’s “how it’s always kind of been” for amateur athletes.

Will Cromack, director of sport at Charitable Impact, a public foundation that operates as a donor-advised fund, said Canada has historically been an underfunded sports country.

“Canada’s social support system helps lots of different things, which makes it a wonderful country to live in, but it’s not the most ideal from an aspiring Olympian’s perspective,” said Cromack. 

“Like everything, money is drying up in the world of elite level sport. … When it comes to individual Olympian sports … they’re primarily funded by their parents and what they can raise while working jobs and training and it’s very difficult, which makes being at an elite level in sport athlete in this country difficult.”

Through Charitable Impact, it aids athletes to maximize the charitable aspect of their sport by providing the tools and teachings for athletes to help themselves. In other words, athletes have the resources to take their message to the public and have people donate to a pot online.

Not only are amateur sports organizations in competition with each other for funds, but professional sports, too.

“Sport is extremely expensive, especially at the elite level, and there’s lots of people looking for the same grants,” said Cromack.

“What we need to do is spread that out amongst the people in the community and help get 40 million in our country engaged, all putting in a tiny little amount for sports to be sustainable and for those people to not have to finance everything to make our country proud,” Cromack said.

Securing sponsorships has been an issue for National Sport Organizations (NSO), which are huge for annual funding for different programs and sport development.

Nordiq Canada CEO Stephane Barrette said the organization is coming out of an era where cross-country skiers won lots of medals for Canada, and over time, they have lost “pretty much all” of these sponsorships.

Now in a rebuilding phase, where they are starting to see gradual success, Barrette said very few NSOs have multi-hundred thousand dollar sponsorships currently. Sometimes, it’s a matter of “who you know” when the call goes out.

“In order to find a new deal with a new corporation, it’s really hard if you don’t have a privileged contact,” said Barrette.

Inflation has also played a role in making things tougher financially, with Canada’s consumer price index up 3.8 per cent in September 2023.

“The No. 1 challenge that all NSOs right now are working together … to lobby the federal government to say, ‘this is what we do and we’re at a critical juncture here financially,’” said Barrette.

“It’s going to get harder and harder to deliver our mandate, which in great part is given to us by the federal government … the core funding to national support organizations hasn’t been increased for about 13 years now since 2010.”

When it comes time to balance a budget, “what that means is we have to cut,” said Barrette.

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