On July 28, the Canada Games are coming to Winnipeg giving people another chance to revel in our nation’s athletic prowess. What often gets lost among the high jumps and 100 metre dashes, though, is that these athletes often struggle to fund their dreams. Most people with Olympic dreams – and even many Olympians themselves – don’t have multi-million-dollar endorsement deals to fund their always-training lifestyle.
If anyone knows what it takes to train full time while trying to fund their dreams it’s Byron Green and David Eng, who represented Canada in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil last summer.
Byron Green began playing wheelchair rugby in university, thinking he could work – he graduated with a civil engineering degree – and train part-time “However, when I made the National Rugby team in 2013, I soon found out that I needed to train full time to stay competitive,” he says.
David Eng, a seasoned sporting veteran – he has gone to the Paralympics four times with Canada’s National Basketball team – started playing wheelchair basketball when he was 12, but it soon became a round-the-clock passion. “I went to the University of Texas on a scholarship for wheelchair basketball and from then on I knew I wanted to become a full-time athlete,” he says.
The cost of training
Although wheelchair rugby and basketball are team sports, national team athletes live in various parts of Canada. To be able to practice together, players have to travel to attend training camps with teammates. Not only do athletes incur travel costs, there are equipment and personal training to cover as well as basic living costs. This can put a financial strain on athletes and their families.
Both Eng and Green estimate their total training costs are about $20,000 per year. Along with travel, another big expense is their equipment. In addition to the initial purchase price of a wheelchair, there are maintenance costs that end up totalling anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000.
Some athletes are fortunate to find an employer that will accommodate their intense training schedules, but for a lot of athletes, they rely on sponsorships, bursaries and government funding.
Paying to go the games
Some athletes are fortunate to find an employer that will accommodate their intense training schedules, but for a lot of athletes, they rely on sponsorships, bursaries and government funding. The Team Investors Group Amateur Athletes Fund is just one of the bursaries available to Canadian athletes. Eng has received the bursary twice and Green was a recent recipient.
“I was able to use my bursary for wear and tear costs to my wheelchair as well as to travel to tournaments,” says Green. “It’s a financial sacrifice to compete at the sport’s highest level and bursaries like Investors Group’s make it more viable for athletes to spend their time working towards their dreams.”
In addition, some athletes get funding from Sport Canada and Own the Podium and sponsorships are also available. “Sponsorships are provided on a yearly basis and they provide services or money,” says Eng. “I was able to get sponsors before the Paralympics in Rio, but I had to look for more sponsorships this year.”
It also helps to have family support. “My parents, even today, are really involved. My dad owns an apartment building I live in and helps me with rent,” says Eng.
As difficult as training and fundraising is, being at the games makes the hard work worth it. Eng fondly remembers his first Paralympics Games in Athens in 2004. “It was incredible,” he says. “That’s when it hits you; I am really competing in something way greater than myself.” His team won a gold medal that year.
As athletes get older, and life gets busier, things get more demanding financially and time wise, says Eng. If he wants to go to the next Paralympics, he’ll have to start working on raising money now. “I am not saying Rio was my last Paralympics,” he says, “but I have to figure out how I will cover the next four years if I want to go to Tokyo.”