Canadian runner Adam Charles Kunkel waves his national flag, 27 July 2007, after winning the 400m hurdles gold medal in the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Athletes pay the price for Olympic gold
By Matthew Coutts,
Tuesday, Jul. 27, 2010
TORONTO — No one knows the cost of chasing gold better than Adam Kunkel.
The 29-year-old Canadian record holder in the 400-metre men’s hurdles buried himself in debt trying to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Therapy costs, plane tickets and even gas to drive to practice add up in the four-year window between Olympic events.
Worse yet, Kunkel tore his hamstring and did not recover in time to hit the qualifying time before Canada’s Olympic roster was named.
“After going thousands in debt on my credit card just to pay to train and for competitions, I was left on the outside,” Kunkel said Tuesday, adding he had no regrets about spending to become the best.
“I could have tried to compete and live within my means, and that is what a lot of people said I should have done, but I would have been selling myself short.”
Now just two years away from the 2012 London Summer Games, Kunkel and more than 500 other would-be Olympic athletes face the same nagging question about whether to cut losses or to invest more in their Olympic dreams.
The decision was made slightly easier for 190 Canadian athletes, who Tuesday each received a $6,000 slice of funding from the Canadian Athletes Now Fund.
CAN Fund announced the dispersal of more than $1-million for athletes to help pay for training, coaching, nutrition, equipment, team fees, travel and basic living expenses.
“What it means for Canadian athletes is independence. It empowers them, and allows them to train and focus on the task at hand. It allows them to not worry about rent and proper nutrition,” said Jane Roos, founder of the Canadian Athletes Now Fund. “It’s about allowing people to be great. It is about allowing athletes peace of mind.”
Canadian Olympic athletes receive $18,000 each year from the government if they reach certain qualifications, and also turn to sponsors to help cover costs.
Kunkel said he was among the top-funded athletes in his field before the Beijing Olympics, with $30,000. But even then he had to dip into his wallet. He will use some of the money from Canadian Athletes Now Fund to pay down debt left over from that run.
“Everything that someone else pays for is dollars in my pocket and a saving on our expenses. It doesn’t matter how much funding you have, you can spend every dime if you want to be at 100%,” Kunkel said.
In 2007, Kunkel looked like a shoo-in to make the roster for the Beijing Olympics, with a Canadian record time of 48.24 seconds in the 400-metre hurdles. But he tore his hamstring at the 2007 world championships in Osaka, Japan, and collapsed while trying to finish his heat.
With his training regime on hold, Kunkel failed to post the necessary qualifying time before the Canadian Olympic Committee named its team.
“I walked away with a concussion and a hurt knee instead of a ticket to Beijing,” he said.
Now nearly 30 years old, Kunkel is forced to question whether to put his Olympic dreams behind him.
“I know guys who have gotten to this stage of their careers and decide they can’t go forward. It is just time to pack it up, even if they are close to making it. After Beijing and not making it, I seriously considered whether it was time to give it up.”
But family and friends convinced him not to quit, not because of money.
CAN Fund has raised more than $12-million in its 14-year existence. The financial boon was helped by a $1.4-million donation from Sprott Asset Management LP, which had promised $100,000 to the fund for every gold medal Canada won at the Vancouver Olympics.
The fund received a record 545 requests for support this year, 386 from summer athletes training for London 2012. Roos said 58% of summer athletes with top-10 world rankings still have negative incomes.
Kunkel says his training schedule, about four or five hours in the middle of the day when his coach is available, makes it nearly impossible to hold a steady job.
“I could work the night shift, but what is that going to cost me in my training? It would be money back in my pocket, but how much would the strain be mortgaging my career?”