Sports

Bigger cheques start arriving for Canada's Olympians and Paralympians

CALGARY — A pay raise for Canada's Olympians and Paralympians is rolling out with the Winter Games just weeks away.

Sports Minister Kent Hehr revealed details of the increased money going into the Athletes Assistance Program on Friday at WinSport, where many athletes train.

They receive monthly "carding" cheques from the AAP for living expenses and sport costs their federations don't cover.

A senior card is now worth $1,765 a month, an increase of $265. Development card athletes get $1,060, which is a top-up of $160.

It's the first increase since 2004.

"This is an 18 per cent increase to what they were getting before," Hehr said.

"This will allow them the freedom to go out and compete, the freedom for them to train, the freedom then to not worry about rent or food. For many of our athletes, they were getting to that critical point."

About 1,900 athletes get carding money. 

"It seems like not a lot but I know for athletes, that means you can make better choices at the grocery store," Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe said.

"You can not have to worry so much about where you're driving and gas money. This is the everyday living and training expenses that athletes choose. That extra 18 per cent means the world to the high-performance athletes here in Canada."

Former luger Jeff Christie, who chairs the Canadian Olympic Committee's athletes' commission, and Olympic champion paddler Adam van Koeverden led the charge for the first raise in 13 years.

"I was an athlete the last time they raised it," Christie said. "We went from $1,200 to $1,500 and I felt like I was the king."

Tuition money has also jumped $500 to a maximum of $5,500 per year. Other grants such as child-care support come out of the AAP, which has a budget of $33 million for 2017-18. 

The federal government committed in the March budget to pump an extra $5 million annually into the AAP.

Athletes didn't know until Friday exactly how that would impact the dollar amount on their cheques as they didn't receive a raise right away. 

So they're also due for a bonus. It was announced they're eligible for retroactive pay on the increases for the 2017-18 fiscal year that started April 1.

The 2018 Winter Olympics open Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, followed by the Paralympic Games in March.

Skeleton racer Elisabeth Vathje, who lives in southeast Calgary, will use the extra money for her commute to the sliding track on the city's west side.

"It's gas money so I can get to training," she said. "I live a long ways away. It's that little bit of stress taken off our shoulders which is incredible. It's been a long time coming."

Para-swimmer Tammy Cunnington of Red Deer, Alta., says she'll put the extra money towards the $25 an hour she pays to rent a lane at the pool.

"It's actually amazing how far that money can go," Cunnington said. "That's a significant more number of hours I can spend in the pool."

Van Koeverden told The Canadian Press earlier this year he wanted a 24 per cent increase in carding to catch up with the rise of inflation over 13 years. He believes a senior card should be $2,000 per month.

At least 120 athletes wrote letters to members of Parliament and the minister of finance prior to the budget asking for a pay hike, according to Christie.

He and van Koeverden are now lobbying to adjust the AAP for inflation every three years.

"We really want to make sure the amount an athlete can make is truly sustainable for them to live," Christie said.

The Canadian government, and by extension the Canadian taxpayer, is the largest investor in high-performance sport at about $200 million annually.

Own The Podium makes funding recommendations directing $70 million in targeted excellence money — about $6 million comes from the COC — to sports federations whose athletes demonstrate medal potential.

The AAP has provided more than $512 million for 15,000 athletes over 40 years, according to the Department of Canadian Heritage.

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