Two weekends ago I made a trip to Victoria to watch the national rugby team take on Argentina in the Americas Cup final. I used to play the sport, and now I do everything I can to support it.
Canada lost by a 23-14 final score, but as usual the scoreboard didn’t tell the whole story. Canada missed nine points in penalty kicks, and a couple of questionable calls by the ref led to two of Argentina’s tries. And it was close until the very end.
Canada probably could have fielded a slightly better side if the game was more important in the scheme of things. A lot of Canada’s top players are overseas right now playing for pro clubs in the U.K., New Zealand and elsewhere (although Argentina could probably say the same thing).
Despite the loss, I don’t think anybody was unhappy at the end of 80-plus minutes. Argentina is ranked 10th right now and Canada, sitting 14th, made the case that they’re ready for the top 10. The Canadians played heroically against a big and very skilled team, and almost came up with the win. It wasn’t hard to feel proud walking out of the new stadium — and Rugby Canada’s new official training centre — in Langford on Saturday night.
It’s difficult to imagine it, but all of those players that put on a Canadian jersey for that game and played their hearts out were essentially volunteers. They do get some support here and there, and a few of them do have small pro contracts to play elsewhere, but for the most part these guys are sacrificing years of their life to be able to play for Canada.
You could say that it’s an honour to be picked to play for the national team in any sport, and it is — but really, the honour is all ours.
As we head into another Olympics it’s good to remember just how much athletes of all stripes sacrifice of themselves to reach the top. They spend an incredible amount of time and money (often their own) and put their bodies on the line. Snowboardcross champion Maëlle Ricker has had 10 knee surgeries so far and she’s still racing for Canada! That’s something deserves recognition and celebration. And funding.
Some athletes are in it for themselves to a degree. There are pro contracts and sponsorships up for grabs is some sports, and some athletes are compensated quite well for their pains. But sponsorships aren’t what they used to be in this country and not every athlete that makes the national team is going to become the new face of RBC or McDonald’s or McCain frozen juice.
And even when the money is there it’s not the whole story. NHL players have no financial incentive whatsoever to play for Canada, and are actually risking their future earnings by agreeing to play — and yet every Canadian player in the league would be on a plane to Sochi in February if they could.
Right now our amateur athletes do get a few perks, providing they meet all the right criteria. Some athletes qualify for the federal Athlete Assistance Program, and can receive up to $1,500 a month to help with living expenses. Athletes can also benefit from team sponsors and personal sponsors, get some personal funding through their Nationals Sport Organization (NSO), earn prize money, apply for grants or earn awards and scholarships. They can even get university tuition paid for when they’re done competing, based on the numbers of years they were with the national team.
The problem is that this level of support — if it’s even enough for athletes — only goes to the best of the best, guaranteed medal hopefuls in the sports that happen to be designated “Olympic.” For example, World Cup downhill champion Steve Smith from Nanaimo wouldn’t qualify for many of these programs because the Olympic Committee hasn’t made it an Olympic sport.
We can do a lot better for our athletes. I guarantee they’re doing everything they can for us.