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Todd Hirsch
Todd Hirsch

Todd Hirsch

A modest proposal to honour our athletes Add to ...

Politicians, bureaucrats and foreign diplomats make personal sacrifices in the service of their country and are awarded appropriately with pensions when they retire. But another group serving their country with every bit as much commitment and passion - Canadian amateur athletes - receives not a single penny of thanks after they retire. These heroes deserve the same treatment as others who sacrifice for their country.

Think about the contribution made by our Olympic and World Cup athletes. They often do more to unify the country and provide a sense of national identity than any politician's speech. They deserve more recognition; a federal pension would be a good place to start.

Here's how it could work: A dollar amount for each year of international competition would be paid for the rest of the athlete's life. Because most athletes retire from their amateur career at a relatively young age, the annual pension could be quite modest - say, $1,000 for each year of competition. A Canadian athlete who competed internationally for, say, five years would be eligible for a pension of $5,000 a year.

Without question, athletes compete in sports because they like them. No one forces them. They develop strong character traits and learn important skills. They also get to travel the world. On these accounts, some would argue that Canada's amateur athletes have it pretty good and that a pension isn't necessary.

But that misses the point. A pension is justified for one simple reason: These individuals serve their country. What's more, amateur athletes are generally required to dedicate years of their life, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, to training. These are years in which the rest of us are busy finishing school, getting jobs and building careers. Athletes who compete internationally sacrifice these career-building years.

Granted, a few former Olympians and World Cup athletes do very well in their post-sport careers. They stand to gain financially because of their celebrity status, especially if they land a lucrative commercial endorsement. Some retired athletes are able to spin their popularity into careers as motivational speakers.

But these are by far the minority. A disappointing number of them end up struggling financially. For many of these sports heroes, starting a career at 30 or older is a daunting challenge.

The issue comes down to money. Ottawa will be quick to point out that it already financially supports amateur sport. But a pension is different. It's not about supporting athletes - it's about supporting those individuals who sacrificed for their country, proudly wore the Maple Leaf, and unified the hearts of Canadians everywhere.

Besides, the cost would be quite reasonable. Amateur athletes number in the thousands, not hundreds of thousands. Those who continue to pursue their sport by signing professional contracts (such as NHL players) would be exempt. The pension would be fully taxable, so much of it would be clawed back from those lucky enough to earn high incomes. There could be an income threshold above which the pension would be completely clawed back.

Politicians, government workers and embassy personnel deserve recognition for their service. But so do our amateur athletes, who serve their country and make us proud. A pension would be a small step in that direction.

Todd Hirsch is a Calgary-based senior economist at ATB Financial. The opinions expressed are the author's own.

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