Four months after the conclusion of the Vancouver Paralympic Games, Canada’s Para-Nordic Ski Team has suffered cuts amounting to roughly one-third of its total budget.
According to Cross-Country Canada Executive Director Davin Macintosh, the cuts represented 56 percent of the program’s funding from Own the Podium (OTP), the high-performance sports initiative that was set up to propel Canadian athletes to medals at the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
The exact impacts of the cuts are still uncertain, as Cross-Country Canada (CCC) works to restructure its program in the next few weeks. But Macintosh said that the cuts, first reported by the CBC, will force the team to scale back its athlete support.
“In the long term, we’ll have to run a more streamlined program, which probably means fewer staff who can do a wider variety of jobs,” he said.
Over the past five years, Canada’s Para-Nordic program had enjoyed a large infusion of cash from OTP, which was founded in 2005 and has since poured more than $100 million into Olympic sports.
The initiative was designed to provide extra financing specifically earmarked for athletes with strong chances of winning Olympic and Paralympic medals. But over time, the money allotted to the Para-Nordic Ski Team—some $630,000 last year—had come to finance a large portion of its operations.
“When OTP first came into being, they put a lot of money into the development side,” said Jeff Whiting, who recently retired from his job as a Para-Nordic development coordinator for CCC.
“The program grew extremely rapidly over the past four years thanks to rapid increases in support from OTP, and that created a much larger budget,” Macintosh said.
After the conclusion of the 2010 Games, though, OTP’s future was uncertain, since funding from the soon-to-be-dissolved Vancouver Organizing Committee had made up a large proportion of its bottom line.
While the Canadian government doubled its share of OTP support in the federal budget this spring, the total amount of funding available for high-performance programs was still reduced—$20 million, instead of $23 million, according to OTP Director of Winter Sport Ken Read.
And while OTP had targeted three athletes during the 2010 Paralympics—Brian McKeever, Jody Barber, and Colette Bourgonje—only McKeever will continue to receive money for the next four-year Paralympic cycle.
Bourgonje has said that Vancouver was her last Paralympic Games, and “the remainder of the athletes in the program weren’t seeming to have gold medal potential,” Read said, referring to OTP’s standard for funding Paralympic athletes.
“In Paralympic [sports], it’s gold medal potential, not deep athlete development,” Read said. “The sport is supposed to be taking on that role of upkeep.”
An increase in funding to CCC from Sport Canada, a separate arm of the federal government, has softened the impact of the OTP reductions slightly, but not entirely, according to Macintosh.
CCC was informed of the cuts roughly two weeks ago, Macintosh said, and he called a meeting with athletes immediately. The team has been forced to cancel a planned summer training trip to New Zealand, and while funding exists for a trip to World Championships in Norway next year, the extent of the team’s participation in World Cup races earlier in the winter remains unclear.
“We will probably be able to finance fewer athletes to go on the general World Cup circuit, although we will ensure that our athletes are well-prepared for [World Championships],” Macintosh said.
No staff members have been laid off, but job descriptions will probably have to change, Macintosh added.
CCC is currently negotiating with Para-Nordic Head Coach Kaspar Wirz, who Macintosh said will likely continue in a “less-than-full-time capacity.” Technical Coach Robin McKeever—who also serves as a guide for his brother, Brian—would have to take on “a few more responsibilities” to remain with the team.
“We don’t have signed contracts with them,” Macintosh said. “It’s up to them.”
Wirz wasn’t surprised at the cuts—just their magnitude.
“We were thinking maybe 20, 30 percent,” he said. Reductions after Olympic cycles are typical, Wirz added, especially for Paralympic sports.
But Robbi Weldon, a 2010 Paralympian and a member of the Canadian Para-Nordic team, said that she didn’t blame OTP for the cuts.
“If an organization has strict criteria, and that’s what they put our in their documentation, I’m not going to bash them—that’s their mandate,” she said. Nevertheless, she continued, “it’s a huge hit, and I think there’s definitely a lot of questions to CCC—how they’re going to support us, and support the team.”
Macintosh said that he hoped to be able to make up for some of the cuts by finding new sponsors for the Para-Nordic team. CCC has been discussing options with potential backers, and the exposure gained by the athletes during the Vancouver Games should go a long way towards helping them find potential supporters, Wirz said.
“I think now, the public is ready to support that,” he said.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.