Reader’s Forum

Relationship with private sector essential

by Bruce Simpson

Canadian athletes and audiences have not enjoyed their share of Olympic victories and top world performances. We have a high standard of living and a relatively successful economy. Facilities in some localities are marginal, but with a little cooperation, and if the athlete is prepared to relocate, training sites are often available. The depth of coaching is shallow perhaps, but adequate coaching is available if the athlete perseveres. I have yet to hear anyone doubt the physical potential of our athletes. As a nation we seem to enjoy nursing our inferiority complex, but the latent Canadian desire to succeed surfaces quickly enough when one of our athletes appears in a final round.

These and the observations that follow are based on my experience as a national track and field team member over the past 12 years. It should be borne in mind that as a track and field participant my perspective may be significantly different than that of athletes in other sports. For example, many internationally successful track and field athletes, unlike those in swimming or gymnastics, say, are 25 years of age and older, employed, have set up their own homes, and often have begun their families.

I have participated in the federal assistance program for athletes since it began in 1971. Over the years I have offered critical comments on the direction taken by the program and, as track and field team captain, I have submitted briefs prepared in our athletes’ meetings in an attempt to remedy the program’s shortcomings.

In conjunction with my athletic career, I was involved in a prolonged university program. To supplement the limited assistance available from federal sources during that time, I actively sought independent or private sector “funding”. Now that I have set up my law practice in Toronto, I am becoming more involved in the business community. My increased business exposure has suggested to me some limitations in our approach to generating private sector funds.

Taxes and lotteries are the sources of federal funding. I submit that the use of tax revenue by a democratic government is justified for a participation based program. I believe that the social structure of a society benefits from the mental and physical health developed through participation in athletics. The encouragement of excellence is a necessary adjunct to such a program. It fosters the desire to excel, sets high levels of achievement, and generally inspires a productive attitude on the part of participants and spectators who can identify with the success achieved.

The socialist countries are involved in international athletics as a political statement. Athletes are selected solely for the excellence program. Funds are concentrated on developing these relatively few performers. The funds are not justified by the indirect return of trying to create a healthier society; rather, funds are drawn from a larger budget set aside for developing international recognition for the socialist country.
The commitment necessary to participate at the international level requires extensive funding, far in excess of what can be justified from a federally subsidized participation-based program. The assistance that is currently available through Sport Canada works well in providing subsistence funding for national level athletes. The program still has limitations. For example, athletes who attend foreign schools must compromise their summer competition programs because funds are not available to them during the summer months, and athletes who don’t choose to compromise their training by holding a full-time job or full school load — unemployed athletes —are eligible for minimal assistance. The federal program also suffers from the bureaucratic limitations of accountability and the “necessity” of objective selection criteria.

Canadian athletes and audiences have enjoyed much improved Pan Am and Commonwealth Games performances. Although half of our Commonwealth Games track team received no federal assistance, I believe the improvement can nonetheless be attributed to the federal program. But Pan Am and Commonwealth gold will not lead to Olympic gold unless we proportionately gear up our program to the increased intensity of Olympic competition.

I submit that we will realize superior international performances when the following factors are recognized:

(1) Athletes must be in a position to devote substantial time each day and week to their respective athletic endeavours.

(2) Further financial assistance, in addition to the subsistence funding presently available from the federal government, is required to put athletes into a financial position such that they do not have to unnecessarily jeopardize their career opportunities nor significantly compromise their standard of living to be an international representative of this country.

(3) The elite athlete assistance program is allowed to continue to mature without drastic change.

(4) The federal government’s financial assistance program must be complemented with a policy towards encouraging and developing private sector funding.

It is a fundamental premise of good business that each transaction must bring in more than it costs. The question then to be answered is how can the amateur athlete reciprocate to the private sector donor? A quick review of the possibilities for providing incentives to business indicate that there are ways to stimulate this source of funding, and thereby generate sufficient independent funding to field a properly prepared elite team.

The most effective incentive to encourage private sector participation would be a tax write-off in excess of 100 per cent of the contribution. Step one (and often the most difficult) is to encourage the powers-that-be to look at such proposals in a positive vein rather than submitting to the habit of keying on the problems they inevitably create. Abuse of such tax relief could be avoided by qualifying the group of athletes eligible for assistance and limiting the total amount of assistance per donor. Allowing a $12,000 write-off on a $10,000 grant may be sufficient in itself to stimulate all of the funds required.

Private sector donors must be recognized for their contribution. Besides acknowledgement from the federal and provincial governments, the businesses will want to be associated with specific athletes. Strangely enough, it is the tax laws, rather than amateur status limitations, that currently prevent this direct association. For example, Johnson & Daniel Real Estate Limited (J&D) deposits funds into the track and field’s “Athlete’s Reserve Fund”, a fund from which Diane Jones Konihowski and I draw expenses. We cannot state that J&D makes our training program possible because income tax would then have to be paid on all funds received. We can acknowledge that J&D contribute to the fund, as does Pepsi Cola and others, but their funds cannot be specifically earmarked to a particular athlete as the tax laws now stand.

Businesses that support amateur athletes must be patronized. Big Brother isn’t going to tell you to buy Pepsi when you are in front of a pop machine, or suggest J&D when a relative mentions buying or selling a house. The athletic community must set the example and people must be made aware that their patronage of businesses that assist national team athletes is a significant contribution to the development of strong national teams.

So long as we do not publicly recognize private sector donors and patronize their businesses, people such as Jamie Gairdner (president of J&D) have no reply to other presidents who ask, “What is the return for adopting an athlete?”

In my opinion, the final major step in realizing international success is a direct function of the development of private sector funding, especially at this time, when government spending is being reviewed. The new program emphasis must be to encourage the private sector’s involvement.

I believe that there are sound reasons why a democratic government should be involved in amateur sport and the encouragement of excellence therein. The proposed new area of emphasis, development of private sector assistance, need not significantly increase demands on the public purse. To the political observer who requires more tangible returns it would seem a fair observation that the two ministers who were responsible for the development of amateur sport in each of the last two federal governments are the two ministers who are most recognized and remembered by Canadians. The substantial coverage that this ministry has attracted suggests that it is of concern to Canadians and an area upon which political parties could capitalize by developing a sound policy.

Bruce Simpson, 29, won the gold medal in pole vault at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.

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