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COVID-19 exposing thin financial margins of Canada's Olympic athletes

Any lingering hope Sarah Pavan had about competing on this season's professional beach volleyball circuit was crushed the day city workers came to cut down the nets on Hermosa Beach.

Any lingering hope Sarah Pavan had about competing on this season's professional beach volleyball circuit was crushed the day city workers came to cut down the nets on Hermosa Beach.

Canada's reigning world champion, with partner Melissa Humana-Parades, lives in the beachfront city just south of Los Angeles. Nets were taken down Saturday to discourage large gatherings. 

"I had been going out and practising with my husband (Adam Schulz, a coach and former player), just working on little things that I wanted to get better at," Pavan said. 

"We have two of our own nets set up permanently where we train. So my husband had to boot it down to the beach to grab them, and he honestly just got there to take them down as the city was driving up to cut them. He saved them, but it was really, really sad."

This week's decision by the International Olympic Committee and Japan's organizing committee to postpone the Tokyo Games to 2021 was a relief to Canada's athletes who weren't going if the Games were held this summer.

But the current shutdown of sport worldwide means athletes aren't earning prize money from competitions, nor performance bonuses from sponsors.

Pavan and Humana-Parades would have opened the season Thursday in Cancun, Mexico, but all FIVB tournaments scheduled for the next few weeks have been wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tournament wins come with a paycheque of between US$20,000 to $40,000, plus crucial Olympic ranking points.

"It's been really challenging," Humana-Paredes said. "Our FIVB season for 2020 is pretty much done, which is kind of surreal. Prize money from tournaments was my main source of income, and we no longer have them. So hopefully some of them will get postponed to a later time this year. But again, there's so many unknowns and I think everyone's just in a financial pinch." 

Calgary-based sports agent Russell Reimer, who represents trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan and wrestler Erica Wiebe among others, thinks of Olympic athletes as entrepreneurs.

"They assume a lot of risk," he said. "When you think of the potential payoffs for them for training in anonymity for four years and having to adjust to maybe a fifth year or an extended career, you wonder if they've planned appropriately or they're financially in a position to do that.

"The younger you are, the less established you are, the more likely you are to get performance-heavy contracts. That would typically impact young athletes going into their first quad much more than established athletes."

Some good news for Canadian athletes is a disruption isn't expected in 2020-21 to their monthly Athletes Assistance Program cheques from Sport Canada, also known as "carding" money, that covers living expenses such as rent and food.

Own The Podium and Game Plan leaders said former Olympic paddler and Liberal MP Adam van Koeverden confirmed that Wednesday.

A senior card is $1,765 per month — $21,180 annually — and a development card is $1,060.

The AAP also provides supplementary money in the areas of tuition, relocation, child-care and retirement support with a limit of $13,000 per year.

Athletes who win a medal at the most recent Olympic and Paralympic Games, or world championship, are eligible for an additional $500 per month if their annual income is below $55,000.

Canadian sprint star Andre De Grasse makes a good chunk of his money in meet appearance fees, prize money, and performance bonuses built into his contracts with major sponsors such as Puma. 

But the first three legs of the prestigious Diamond League circuit have been postponed, and the remainder of the season is a big question mark.

"Just generally speaking, any of the higher-level professional track athletes are looking at five figures and, for some, six-figure losses for sure, based on the number of meets they would do in a season," said sports marketing agent Brian Levine, who works with De Grasse and soccer star Christine Sinclair among others.

Brittany Crew, the Canadian record-holder in women's shot put, said it's "going to suck" if all the season's major meets are cancelled.

"Because that is definitely our income for most of the year. That's where you get your security blanket, that's a big loss of income for a lot of us athletes," she said.

Game Plan, an athlete wellness organization for Canada's high-performance athletes, has scheduled a financial webinar for Friday.

"I do expect the amount of uncertainty right now is similar to anyone in Canada who is worried about their career," Game Plan manager Thomas Hall said. "They are just trying to figure it out like everyone else and uncertainty causes tension."

Some athletes supplement their income with off-season, short-term jobs, which might not exist as the economy shuts down.

"Those people are potentially the hardest hit by this, so athletes will certainly feel it," Hall said.

The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee drew a line in the sand last Sunday in announcing they wouldn't send teams to the Tokyo Games this summer.

Canada and Australia were the first countries to pull their teams out. Within 36 hours, the IOC announced the Games would be pushed back to 2021.

So if there's something to be leveraged from the Tokyo Games postponement, it's that Canada led the way.

"What a great, pre-emptive move by our Olympic and Paralympic representatives to take the stance they did," said agent Lawrence Baslaw. "The Olympic and Paralympic brands right now, really as a marketer, are standing out there proudly."

Swimmer Aurelie Rivard, a five-time Paralympic medallist, had a commercial shoot for Gatorade scheduled for last week. It's been temporarily shelved.

"We got such a nice note from (Gatorade) saying 'Hey, we're behind you 100 per cent, we're going to figure this out,'" said Baslaw, who represents Rivard. "I know it's hard for some companies because the balance sheets don't look that great right now. But we've all got to believe that we're going to get through this too, and we just need to be strong right now."

Reimer agrees Canada's athletes improved their marketing power for 2021 by taking a bold stance.

"Just in the last four days we've seen so many athletes step up and fill the leadership vacuum outside the shadow of pros and make really compassionate statements about Canada," Reimer said.

"The full narrative power of the Olympics and especially Team Canada now to build national identity and unity beyond the Games window, has never been stronger.

"We'll see how brands respond to that."

Numerous pre-Olympic campaigns have already been filmed and photographed, and ones booked for the next few weeks have been cancelled, said Levine.

Those companies must decide: do they shelve those campaigns entirely? Levine suggested these unprecedented times present a unique opportunity for sponsors.

He pointed to Nike's recent "play inside" campaign that stated: "If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world." 

"That was brilliant. Brilliant," Levine said. "And they were able to mobilize obviously, the roster of athletes that they have under contract to spread that to share that message."

When athletes can finally return to training and competition, indications are financial support will be there.

Own The Podium provides technical expertise to sport federations and makes funding recommendations to Sport Canada based on medal potential.

OTP directs roughly $70 million of Sport Canada money annually to winter and summer Olympic and Paralympic sport.

"We've received confirmation that the financial support will remain as was signalled previously for the 2020-21 fiscal year," OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said.

"That will give sport some confidence, reassurance and stability that they can go back revamp, adjust and revise their high-performance plans and programs."

The COC's 26 sponsorship contracts run into the millions of dollars. The COC prepares athletes for Games and looks after their needs on the ground.

"I was quite heartened to receive an outpouring of support from our marketing partners. All 26 of them communicated with us in some way about how proud they were of our decision," COC chief executive officer David Shoemaker said.

RBC and the COC put out an ad Thursday pointing out the sacrifices Canadian athletes were prepared to make if the Olympics went ahead this summer.

"As a Canadian Olympic athlete, you've trained and sacrificed all your life with one goal in mind," the ad says with written words while video of athletes training is shown. "And now you've had to put your greatest dream on hold until athletes can compete safely once again."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

Lori Ewing and Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press