Drowning in debt, Canadian athletes ask for raise in monthly ‘carding’ money in federal budget

Olympic bobsledder Cynthia Appiah is thousands of dollars in debt for her sled’s runners and for travel to competition.

Her Canadian teammate Melissa Lotholz recently sought free accommodation in a church while competing in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Olympic rowing champion Andrea Proske says she’s still paying off debt, and her mother planted an extra garden to grow fruits and vegetables to meet her caloric needs when Proske trained and raced on a tight budget.

With the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris on the horizon, Canada’s athletes are asking for a $6.3 million raise to the Athletes Assistance Program (AAP), informally known as “carding” money, in the federal government’s April 16 budget.

A monthly cheque of $1,765, $1,060 for a development-level athlete, is for living expenses and competition costs their sport’s governing body doesn’t cover.

“Carding is my main source of income,” Appiah said. “It’s pretty much the only thing that I know will be sustainable through a whole year both in and outside of competition.”

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

Athletes saw their AAP increase in 2017 by $265 a month, or 18 per cent, in the first raise since 2004.

The latest ask, which would be an increase of 18.8 per cent, is independent of a joint demand by the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees for an injection of $104 million into the sport system.

Appiah drives car with 360,000 km

One goes hand in hand with the other, however, as athletes cover costs their national federations can’t. Appiah is paying off $10,000 runners for her sled and still has $6,000 on her credit card from travelling to World Cups in Latvia and Austria last year.

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

When Appiah heads to the bob team’s training centre in Calgary, she says she “couch surfs” and drives a 2007 car with rusty wheel wells and 360,000 kilometres on it.

WATCH | Appiah slides to monobob bronze in Lake Placid, N.Y.:

Canada’s Appiah claims World Cup monobob bronze medal

Toronto’s Cynthia Appiah captured her first World Cup monobob medal of the season in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The AAP, worth $21,000 annually, is the primary source of income in many athletes’ financial traplines that can also include provincial grants, prize money or sponsorships.

Appiah says income from Ontario’s Quest for Gold program, her status as an RBC Olympian and sponsorships that come and go year to year gets her to about $28,000 annually.

“A lot of people that I’ve had this conversation with in terms of funding, seem to have this idea that Canadian Olympians are very much living in the lap of luxury. There’s this illusion that we get high top-dollar sponsors,” Appiah said.

“Andre De Grasse, Christine Sinclair, those are the few and far between that have those million-dollar contracts.”

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

Two Canadian bobsledders, wearing beige toques and dark jackets, pose for photos after winning a women's two-person World Cup bobsled race in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Nov. 9, 2017.
Bobsledder Melissa Lotholz, left, embraces athletes’ additional request to index the Athletes Assistance Program to the inflation rate. “Literally every penny helps,” says the 31-year-old from Barrhead, Alta. (Peter Morgan/Associated Press/File)

Free stay in Lake Placid church

That’s meant competing on the North American Cup circuit this past winter and “paying out of pocket for pretty much everything minus coaching,” she said.

The two-time Olympian says she stayed for free in a Lake Placid church while competing in her final event of the season. Lotholz embraces athletes’ additional request to index the AAP to the inflation rate.

“Literally every penny helps. It does all make a difference for sure,” said the 31-year-old from Barrhead, Alta. ” I really appreciate too in this ask, that they’re also asking that it be variable so that it increases with inflation.”

WATCH | Lotholz spurred onto Olympics by Barrhead community:

Melissa Lotholz couldn’t have made it to her first Olympic Games without the support of her hometown of Barrhead

Growing up on a farm has laid a good foundation for sport and life for the first time Olympian and two-time bobsleigh World Championship silver medallist.

But there is no indication an AAP increase is forthcoming in the federal budget.

“While Budget 2023 announced refocusing of government spending, in its continued commitment to athletes, this government has strategically reallocated resources within the Sport Support Program to ensure that direct funding to athletes through the Athlete Assistance Program is not affected,” said a statement from the office of Canadian sports minister Carla Qualtrough.

Proske was a member of the women’s eights that captured Olympic rowing gold in Tokyo. The 37-year-old from Langley, B.C., is now vice-president of AthletesCan, which is an association representing national athletes.

“In women’s rowing, especially as a top-tier gold medallist, I put myself into debt and my husband into debt trying to stand in the middle of the podium with the Maple Leaf on my chest,” Proske said.

“We are not professional athletes. We’re amateur athletes. Many of our sports do not pair very well with sponsorships. Using rowing as example, I can’t sell any sponsorship space on my boat, I can’t put a logo on my visor, I am limited in how many logos I have.”

Many training centres ‘in expensive cities’

Athletes know how to stretch a dollar, Proske said, but there’s a breaking point.

“We don’t always have control over where we’re training. A lot of these training centres are in very expensive cities,” she said. “It also is really expensive to be an athlete versus a normal human. I ate 4,000 calories a day. Many of the men ate 10,000 calories a day.”

Canada has a network of seven sport institutes. CSI Pacific’s campuses are in Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler, B.C.

CSI Ontario is headquartered in Toronto’s Pan Am Sports Centre. CSI Calgary caters to many winter-sport athletes.

Vancouver averages $2,181 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, Victoria $1,839, Toronto $1,961 and Calgary $1,695, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s January 2024 rental report.

Listed prices for vacant units are often much higher. In March’s national rent rankings compiled by website Rentals.ca, monthly rents in Vancouver were listed at $2,653 for a one-bedroom apartment and $3,541 for a two-bedroom, while Toronto was close behind at $2,495 and $3,297 respectively.

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

Resource scarcity contributes to a sport system that is less safe, Appiah said.

“In that conversation of safe sport, a lot of the times athletes will put themselves into vulnerable positions because it’s the only option they have, and finances play a big part of that,” she said. “The AAP is, for most people, is their only source of income, so you make decisions that no sane person would actually make.

“If we had that increase of 18 per cent and then also tied to inflation, we can live like normal human beings for the most part.”

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