THE WINTER GAMES

The funding race

Budget-cutting is the sport in Ottawa, and athletes may pay

LUKE FISHER February 14 1994
THE WINTER GAMES

The funding race

Budget-cutting is the sport in Ottawa, and athletes may pay

LUKE FISHER February 14 1994

The funding race

THE WINTER GAMES

Budget-cutting is the sport in Ottawa, and athletes may pay

LUKE FISHER

Sure, a medal would be nice, but many Canadian athletes have a much more down-to-earth reason for wanting to do well at the Lillehammer Games. Unless they perform impressively, they could lose their federal funding when Sport Canada bureaucrats review the agency’s spending plans later this year. The expected cuts are likely to be so severe that some of the 58 sports now financed by Ottawa will lose all their federal support. That has put intense pressure on athletes, coaches and sport officials alike to show that they deserve taxpayers’ support. “We are going through the process of justifying our sport,” says Wally Rauf, executive director of the Canadian Luge Association, which received $300,000 in federal assistance in the 1992-1993 fiscal year.

“And we are definitely worried.”

To make matters worse, many amateur federations are still trying to adjust to last year’s rollbacks. At that time, federal grants to each of the national sports organizations were reduced by anywhere from eight to 16 per cent, depending on the number of athletes in each sport and their world rankings. The overall funding level fell 10 per cent to $60 million, of which about $5 million is paid directly to more than 880 athletes in the form of monthly stipends ranging from $150 to $650 depending on performance. The bulk of the money is spent on administration and training programs.

By all accounts, this year’s cuts will be even more draconian. Since last June, Cal Best, a former assistant deputy minister of immigration, has been working under a federal contract to develop new criteria by which Ottawa will decide which “core sports” should receive continued support. Although it will be up to the minister responsible for Sport Canada, Michel Dupuy, to make the final decision, it appears likely that any sport that fails to meet the new criteria will lose its funding.

Best is not expected to finalize his recommendations until March, and they may not be made public. But his approach seems clear from the 1992 federal task force on sport policy that he chaired. In its report, the task force proposed an unspecified reduction in the number of sports that receive public funds for international competition, with preference given to sports “of historical, cultural, geographical and developmental importance to Canada.” If it adopted that approach, Ottawa would continue to pour money into ice hockey, alpine skiing and figure skating—but cash for team handball and men’s field hockey could dry up. Also at risk would be winter events like luge, ski jumping and nordic combined, which have relatively few competitors and produced disappointing results at the 1988 and 1992 Games.

Not surprisingly, officials in many of the smaller sports are nervous. The Canadian Ski Jumping Association receives more than $250,000 in federal funding each year, although not one of the 300 athletes who benefit from that support has met the Canadian Olympic Association’s standards for competing in Lillehammer. But Jim Bandola, the associa-

tion’s technical director, insists that the ski-jumping program is gaining strength and would suffer if funding were cut. He questions why Ottawa would take money from lessestablished sports rather than from those strong enough to survive on their own—such as alpine skiing and figure skating. “If the government money is only 10 per cent of their budget,” he says, “maybe they can survive without it.”

But the director general of the Canadian Figure Skating Association— which receives 12 per cent of its $9.3-million annual budget from the federal government and raises the rest from skating exhibitions, membership fees and private sponsorships—strongly disagrees. “If you cut off the successful sports,” says David Dore, “you are sending the wrong message. We should reward the sports that are managed well, not punish them.” Abby Hoffman, a former Olympic runner who served as director general of Sport Canada until 1991, expresses a similar view. Hoffman told Maclean’s that she hopes the current director, Gaston Blais, will tackle what she sees as the basic problem in sport policy: the funding of too many sports at the international level. Taxpayers, she says, will not tolerate that type of indiscriminate spending forever. Those warning of the possible death of their sport in Canada, she adds, should consider the other side of the coin: “Maybe the sport should die.”

As sensible as that approach might sound to many taxpayers, it is hardly the sort of message that Canadian athletes and officials want to hear as they pack their bags for the long flight to Norway. “If we do really well at Iillehammer, it will put a lot of pressure on the federal government,” says Ben Morin, executive director of Bobsleigh Canada, which is sending 11 competitors to this month’s Games. “But right now, competing against the Swiss and the Germans isn’t half as tough as just surviving in this economic environment” The final standings in that competition will be decided not on some icy slope in Norway, but in the back rooms of Ottawa.

LUKE FISHER in Ottawa with JAMES DEACON in Edmonton