Should Canada Pay Its Amateur Athletes?


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Now that the post-flame bliss is beginning to wane and the rosy patriotic glow of another Olympic Games is slowly fading, Canadians will inevitably do a little navel-gazing about the state of amateur sport and the role money plays in amateur athletics. There will be some high-profile pieces about a couple of our most successful athletes scoring great endorsement deals and there will be others that talk about the pauper lifestyle that many lesser-known athletes have to live in order to put in the training hours necessary in their sport. The one thing that I believe is missing in all this quadrennial talk (or maybe biennial since we love us some Winter Games as well) is the public debate about how much tax dollars (if any at all) should go towards funding amateur sport in Canada. I’m definitely torn on this particular issue, and I’m not sure where I ultimately come down.

Today’s Version of “Amateur”

I used to box with a couple of “carded” athletes and a few more guys who had been carded and on the Canadian National Team at one point. I know how hard they trained and the obsession that one must have in order to compete with the best in the world. I saw just how many hours they put in every week, and the astounding amount of energy it took out of their bodies. I’m fairly certain it would not have been possible for them to work a traditional 40-hour-a-week job, and still put in the training that was needed. Maybe something in the part-time, 20-25 range, but that’s it, and realistically that still put them at a massive disadvantage relative to their international competitors.

You see the little-known reality of elite amateur athletics is that they are no longer amateur. The big splash obviously came when high-status sports such as hockey and basketball allowed their professional athletes to compete in the Olympic games, but even in “lower spotlight” sports, there are rarely any amateurs. By my definition (I realize there is some grey area here) an amateur athlete is someone who does not get paid to participate in their sport. That’s it, end of story. If the government pays you to play your sport for a living you are not considered a true amateur anymore in mind. I’m not knocking any Canadian athletes who do take federal dollars (god knows I would have jumped at the opportunity if I was good enough), I’m just saying that to pretend these guys are in the same sort of circumstances as the amateurs of yesteryear is ridiculous. So the eventual question for Canadians has to be: Should we be financially supporting our athletes with taxpayer dollars, and if so, to what level? There is little doubt that there is a direct correlation between dollars invested and international results. Money for athletes to train full-time, funding for new innovative technologies, and pay for the best coaches from around the world are all necessary now to compete on the international stage. When China has 400,000+ professional athletes (and they are professional in every sense of the word) in academies by the time they are 10 years old, and even relatively poor countries give out huge medal bonuses to their top athletes, does Canada want to go down that path?

The Only Bling Comes In Gold, Silver, and Bronze

Before anyone gets the picture that Canada’s “carded” amateur athletes (those that receive a living stipend from the government) are living a lifestyle akin to that usually associate with the term “professional athlete” I can assure you that is not true. When I was boxing with these guys 5-6 years ago they were getting a cheque for about $800 a month. The only numbers I could find from the current government site revealed something about two levels of funding at $900 and $1500 respectively. The additional ways athletes could apply for funding made my head hurt as I tried to navigate the website for the Athlete Assistance Program and Own The Podium page. I can’t imagine trying to deal with that bureaucracy in exchange for a stipend that barely pays your rent and food (ever see the caloric intake an Olympic athlete needs?). Therefore the issue here isn’t “are we spoiling our athletes” because we most certainly are not. In fact, one could make the argument that if we truly want to commit to helping our athletes, we aren’t doing a very good job of it, especially in relation to what giants like China are doing.

Justifying Taxpayer Dollars

But then that begs the real question, doesn’t it? Should we want to commit taxpayer dollars to our athletes? I love sports, and I love amateur sports even more. There is something refreshingly honest about a good high school basketball game where committed 17-year-olds wear their emotions on their sleeve and learn valuable life lessons. I don’t get that sort of purity much from the Olympics anymore (even though China’s gymnastics team makes my 17-year-olds look like pension collectors). Think about it this way, if a friendly alien race came down from space tomorrow and was looking at how we allocated our resources, how would you feel about explaining that in a world where we can’t feed everyone, we dedicate massive amounts of wealth to staging an event that is basically a pissing contest between countries at this point? I would feel a little embarrassed once I put it all in context. Even in a wealthy country like Canada, when roughly 16% of our population is under the poverty line (depending on which census you use) and we can’t even afford our own justice system, is there really an argument to be made for paying amateur athletes to pursue their elite dreams?

Please Don’t Take Away My Flag…

In defence of amateurs, I would much rather see some bones thrown their way as opposed to the massive tax breaks given to professional sports teams in this country (which make me sick). I’m just not sure on a big picture level if we can really justify putting a ton of money into paying amateur athletes when there are so many competing priorities. A solid argument can be made that building sports infrastructure like community centres has a massive benefit to the general population, but that argument is tough to expand to financially supporting a boxer, and then paying to fly him/her all over the world to compete.

Maybe I’m just being a penny-pinching curmudgeon in this Olympiad, but doesn’t it look a little weird to you in the grand scheme of things? Should we even be trying to compete with the USA and China? Is the semi-irrational patriotism that the Olympics thrives on even a healthy thing in the abstract?

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