Canada’s Olympic athletes are drowning in debt and are demanding an increase in monthly “carding” money in the federal budget

Olympic bobsledder Cynthia Appiah is thousands of dollars in debt for the runners of her sled and for travel to compete.

Her Canadian teammate Melissa Lotholz was looking for free accommodation at a church during a recent competition in Lake Placid, NY

Olympic rowing champion Andrea Proske says she is still paying off her debts and that her mother planted an additional garden to grow fruits and vegetables to meet her calorie needs as Proske trained and raced on a tight budget.

With the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games just around the corner, Canada’s athletes are calling for a $6.3 million increase in the federal government’s April 16 budget for the Athletes Assistance Program (AAP), also known as the ” Carding Money” is known.

A monthly check of $1,765 — $1,060 for a development-level athlete — is intended for living expenses and competition expenses not covered by his sport’s governing body.

“Playing cards is my main source of income,” Appiah said. “It’s pretty much the only thing I know of that will last a full year, both in and out of competition.”

Over 1,900 athletes across 90 sports are eligible for AAP, which provides other financial support such as tuition and child care.

Athletes’ AAP increased by $265 per month, or 18 percent, in 2017 for the first time since 2004.

The latest request, which would represent an 18.8 per cent increase, is separate from a joint call by the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees for a $104 million cash injection into the sports system.

However, one goes hand in hand with the other, as athletes bear the costs that their national federations cannot cover. Appiah pays runners $10,000 for their sleds and still has $6,000 on her credit card from traveling to the world championships in Latvia and Austria last year.

The 33-year-old lives in Toronto with her sister, “because I can’t afford to live alone in a city like Toronto.”

As Appiah drives to the bobsleigh team’s training center in Calgary, she says she’s “couch surfing” and drives a 2007 car with rusty wheel wells and 360,000 kilometers.

The AAP is worth $21,000 annually and is the primary source of income for many athletes, which can include provincial grants, prize money or sponsorships.

Appiah says she makes about $28,000 a year with income from Ontario’s Quest For Gold program, her status as an RBC Olympian and sponsorships that come and go year after year.

“A lot of people I’ve had this conversation with about funding seem to have this idea that Canadian Olympians live in luxury. There is an illusion that we will get high-profile sponsors,” Appiah said.

“Andre De Grasse, Christine Sinclair, these are the few who have these million-dollar contracts.”

Her teammate Lotholz wants her World Cup status back after taking a year off from racing to complete her studies at the University of Alberta.

That meant competing in the North American Cup last winter and “pretty much having to pay for everything except coaching out of her own pocket,” she said.

The two-time Olympian says she stayed at a church in Lake Placid for free during her final competition of the season. Lotholz welcomes the additional request from athletes to index the AAP to the inflation rate.

“In the truest sense of the word, every cent helps. It definitely makes a difference,” said the 31-year-old from Barrhead, Alta. “I also really appreciate with this request that they also ask that the amount be variable so that it increases with inflation.”

However, there are no signs of an imminent increase in the AAP in the federal budget.

“While Budget 2023 announced a realignment of government spending, as part of its continued commitment to athletes, this government has strategically reallocated resources within the Sports Support Program to ensure that direct funding to athletes through the Athletes Assistance Program is not impacted,” it said Statement from the office of Canadian Sports Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Proske was part of the women’s eight that won Olympic rowing gold in Tokyo. The 37-year-old from Langley, B.C., is now vice president of AthletesCan, an association that represents national athletes.

“In women’s rowing, especially as an elite gold medalist, I put myself and my husband in debt by trying to stand in the middle of the podium with the Maple Leaf on my chest,” Proske said.

“We are not professional athletes. We are amateur athletes. Many of our sports do not combine particularly well with sponsorship. Using rowing as an example, I can’t sell sponsorship space on my boat, I can’t put a logo on my visor and the number of logos I have is limited.”

Athletes know how to make a buck, Proske said, but there is a breaking point.

“We don’t always have control over where we train. Many of these training centers are in very expensive cities,” she said. “It is also very expensive to be an athlete compared to a normal person. I ate 4,000 calories a day. Many of the men were eating 10,000 calories a day.”

Canada has a network of seven sports institutes. CSI Pacific’s locations are located in Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler, BC

CSI Ontario is headquartered at the Pan Am Sports Center in Toronto. CSI Calgary is aimed at many winter sports enthusiasts.

According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s January 2024 rental report, a two-bedroom apartment costs an average of $2,181 per month in Vancouver, $1,839 in Victoria, $1,961 in Toronto and $1,695 in Calgary.

In the Whistler ski resort, which has Canada’s only luge, bobsleigh and skeleton track since Calgary closed, a one-bedroom apartment costs more than $3,000 a month.

Scarcity of resources contributes to a less safe sports system, Appiah said.

“When discussing safe sport, athletes often put themselves in a vulnerable position because it is the only option they have, and finances play a big role in that,” she said. “The AAP is, for most people, their only source of income, so you make decisions that no rational person would actually make.

“If we had that 18 percent increase and then tied it to inflation, we could mostly live like normal people.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2024.

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