Sunday, September 05, 2004

More funding for Canadian Olympics

Score one for athletes
Feds poised to announce huge funding boost
By MARIA McCLINTOCK, Parliamentary Bureau

THE FEDERAL government is poised to announce a major boost to the monthly stipend for Canada's elite athletes so they can focus on training and not worry about making ends meet, Sports Minister Stephen Owen told the Sun. In a wide-ranging interview a week after Canadian athletes came home from the Athens Olympics with 12 medals, Owen said he's ready to give a hefty increase to the current $1,100-a-month, tax-free stipend issued to elite athletes.

The announcement on the hot-button issue of funding for high-performance athletes could come as early as next week, when Prime Minister Paul Martin holds a cabinet meeting in B.C.

NEW STRATEGY

Asked if the increase will be big enough so some athletes won't have to hold down a job, Owen said: "I've said there's going to be a significant increase so I guess that's an answer to your question. Yes. I think that more can be done to assist them.

"We're planning on a significant increase and that's to reflect the importance of being able to support these people to concentrate their efforts on their pursuit of excellence," he said.

As first reported in the Sun, the federal government and the Canadian Olympic Committee are working on a new strategy that will include the development of a National Sports Review Panel to examine funding and ensure it's funnelled to athletes with the best chances of winning medals.

This past spring, the federal government increased Sport Canada's $90-million budget with a one-time, $30-million injection.

Many in the sporting community have said that in order to give elite athletes significant financial relief, the feds would have to add between $8-10 million to the existing $16-million Athletic Assistance Program.

'SIGNIFICANT IMPACT'

The COC welcomed Owen's comments on a funding boost for athletes.

"If he can raise that money up a significant amount ... it will have a pretty significant impact on their lives. We think (the additional money) will get the athletes to a point where at least ... they will have enough of an income (that) they're not going to be worrying about cost-of-living issues while they're focusing on training," COC chairman Chris Rudge told the Sun.

"What I would like to see is that which is apportioned to the Athletics Assistance Fund become part of permanent funding and roll over into the future."

Rudge and Owen are expected to meet next week to discuss the funding. Rudge has also been in touch with the PM's Office to set up a meeting.

Meanwhile, Owen said he's prepared to go to cabinet and be a "strong advocate" in making the case for putting the $30-million injection into the Sport Canada budget on a permanent basis.

"We have to make the case for it to continue and I will be working hard to make that case," he said.

"Clearly one of our objectives is to increase the number (of) medals as a demonstration of the excellence that's being achieved in our country."

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