With the Penn State football scandal hanging over the world of elite sports, many are decrying the prominence put on athletics. At numerous institutions sport is raised high above the level playing field most mortals must be content with. Athletes are given special privileges on campuses and so, it seems, are coaches.
This, however, is not the case for many elite athletes in Canada – in fact, it’s far from it.
In Canadian sports, there’s one that comes to mind: hockey. It’s part of our nation’s identity, passtime and culture. If Americans combined their fanaticism for baseball, basketball and football then they could understand what hockey means to the average Canadian.
But what about Canadian athletes who don’t play hockey?
Many Canadian athletes struggle to make ends meet while they’re training for the Olympics or a world championship. New Brunswick’s funding for sport is the lowest per capita in the country at just over $3 million a year. Comparably, Quebec spends $56 million a year on amateur sports.
As a result, New Brunswick didn’t send one athlete to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The government increased the funding for sport by 25 per cent this year. It was the first time since 1985 funding for athletics has gone up in province.
Evan MacInnis, the athlete services manager at the Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic, said the increase helps, but there’s still a long way to go.
“We still won’t see that effect in London this summer. We might not see that until Rio. It takes six to eight years for an initial injection to show. At the lower level, you might see more athletes doing better at the Canada Games in 2015,” he said.
Not sending an athlete to the Olympics is telling of New Brunswick’s system, MacInnis said.
“It shows that four or five years ago something was really broken. Sending an athlete to the Olympics is just a by-product of a really good system.”
This means many elite athletes from New Brunswick have to go elsewhere to train.
In 2010, New Brunswick judoist Myriam Lamarche was offered $10,000 from Quebec to train there and compete for them. The province matched the offer a week later to make sure she stayed.
Many carded athletes (elite athletes who qualify for government funding assistance) at training centres are forced to supplement their income with separate jobs while training and going to school. For many athletes in Canada, pursuing their dreams means giving up much of their lives.
Carded athletes make $900 a month to train and once they become senior they’ll make $1,500 a month.
“When you’re first coming up through the ranks, it’s basically your parents funding everything,” said Olympic silver medalist Marianne Limpert.
A native of Fredericton, Limpert, 39, went to Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, and Sydney in 2000. She’s trained in Gagetown, Fredericton, Sudbury, Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver.
For many athletes whose parents can’t afford to supplement their training, getting sponsors is the answer.
“Once you’ve had some success it’s easier to get sponsors. You really need money to get there,” Limpert said.
But “in order to get those things, you need the money coming up.”
Limpert is on the board of Sport New Brunswick. It’s an advocacy group that works on what needs to be done for sports in the province and what the best way is to do it.
“Even though there’s a lack of funding, we still have fantastic athletes that are doing a great job,” MacInnis said. “We can’t just say that we’re not getting any athletes because we don’t have any money. That’s not true. Our athletes are doing it in spite of the lack of funding.”
Jebb Sinclair of Fredericton impressed many Canadians while representing his country at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand this fall, where they finished fourth in their pool.
After a good showing for the Canadian team, ranked 13th in the world at the Churchill Cup in England earlier in the summer, Sinclair was signed to a one-year contract with the London Irish of the Aviva Premiership league in England.
But it wasn’t always pro-contracts and World Cups for Sinclair and his teammates.
In his first-year with Team Canada, Sinclair made $900 a month. For the following three years, he was paid $1,500 a month.
“Once in a while, I think around three times in four years we were given a bit of money to buy cleats. We were given gear on tours and would use that most of the time. Luckily, I was on a lot of tours so I always had a lot of kit,” Sinclair said.
Even though money was tight and the work was hard, Sinclair still hopes to play for Canada again.
It “is still the highest accomplishment I can get and while it’s certainly tougher going up against the top teams like France and New Zealand everything rugby Canada could do, they did,” he said.
Playing for Team Canada gave Sinclair the opportunity to make his dreams come true and go pro.
“The lifestyle here is great. We aren’t paid as highly as North American sports but it’s nice not to have to worry about missing payments on credit cards and stuff.
“Being able to go out and do whatever you like is nice as well.”
Caleb Jones is working hard for the chance to represent Canada at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. Originally from Saint John, the javelin thrower moved to Lethbridge, Alta., last year to pursue his dream.
“I couldn’t continue the training I was doing in New Brunswick and get funding. I didn’t have the right training environment,” he said.
Athletes who train at high performance centres are more likely to get carding and the closest centre to the Maritimes is in Ontario.
Jones is part of the 2016 Olympic Development Program and trains at least 30 hours a week. He also goes to culinary school, which carding pays for, and works for the local university and as a fishmonger.
“Out here you have car insurance, food, rent and $900 it covers some things but not everything. It has been a strain for sure.
“But I mean, it’s difficult for the first few years of this kind of training.”
Jones acknowledges he will have to start looking for sponsors soon.
“The closer it comes to 2016 the more time I’m going to have to devote just to javelin and by that time I’ll be finished school and may not be able to work.”
Having been throwing for only four years, he’s determined to keep his roots deep in New Brunswick soil. Next summer at the Canada Games he will still be representing his home province and hopes that one day there will be a centre closer to home.
“It’s crazy that athletes in the Maritimes have to go to the other side of Canada to get consideration for carding.”
Sue Douthwright played for Canada’s national women’s baseball team in 2005 and 2006. When she was 19 she represented Canada at the World Cup in Taiwan where she collected a bronze medal.
The Riverview native went to two national championships with New Brunswick and five with Nova Scotia. Competing for a Maritime province, said Douthwright, comes with challenges of its own.
“The major disadvantage that New Brunswick has against Ontario, Alberta or Quebec is funding. The fact that they have funding, they’re able to run their programs year round, inside and outside and they’re able to compete for gold at national championships,” she said.
For New Brunswick teams, that just wasn’t the case.
“They’re together a month-and-a-half, two months—maybe—and there’s no way you can compete with [a team] who’s together all the time.”
In order to play, Douthwright worked a full-time job, practiced and drove for three hours in a lot of cases to get to games during the season.
“Unless you’re from a family where your parents have money…most of the time you work. You work summers to pay for school or the bills that you have. So I had to draft up sponsorship letters then go to local businesses…and they’d help me get to my goal.”
Because of injuries Douthwright took a break from playing. What would it take for her to go back to the sport she misses?
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