The federal government is signalling it will refuse additional funding for the Own the Podium program, but Sports Minister Gary Lunn says Ottawa will try to persuade Canadian companies and individuals to fill an $11-million gap in the elite-athlete training program after the Winter Games end.
Mr. Lunn, while declining to discuss the contents of next week's federal budget, said Canadians can't always turn to governments for extra cash. "You shouldn't just always reach to government and say 'Oh, it's your problem.'"
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has advised cabinet ministers not to expect extra funding for the coming fiscal year as the government readies for restraint to whittle down Ottawa's big budget deficit, Mr. Lunn said. "The Prime Minister has made it very clear: There is no new money in this budget. Full stop. We have got to get our deficit back down to zero."
That apparent rejection deals a sharp blow to the Canadian Olympic Committee, which says the Own the Podium program will have to be scaled back if Ottawa does not chip in up to $11-million a year to compensate for a loss of revenue from business and provincial governments after the Winter Games.
The shortfall would effectively wipe out half of the current budget for the program's funding of winter sports. The call for more federal money comes as Canadian Olympians fall short of the COC's goal of a first-place finish at the 2010 Games and several prominent sports figures call for an overhaul of the Own the Podium program.
Own the Podium was set up in 2005 as a five-year program to place first at the Vancouver Olympics and in the top three at the Paralympics. Ottawa paid half of its $22-million annual budget, with the remaining $11-million provided by provincial governments and corporations through VANOC. Most of those funds are expected to disappear after the Winter Games conclude.
The elite athletes' program has come under increasing criticism over the past week as it became clear that Canada would fall short of its goal of 30 medals at the Olympics in Vancouver. COC chief executive officer Chris Rudge said yesterday he is hopeful that Own The Podium will receive something "to help keep that pot full."
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said Tuesday the province will continue its funding beyond the 2010 Games, but he did not put a dollar-figure on that commitment.
Peter Davis, a former top official with the program who left in 2008, said it should be expanded and its mandate should be fundamentally altered, with the focus on potential medal winners scrapped in favour of a broader approach that would fund the long-term development of athletes, beginning with school programs and junior programs.
Discontinuing support after hosting a Games is a mistake that nearly every Olympic country has made, he added.
Alpine skier Erik Guay said less emphasis should be placed on funding technology; the program spent $8-million on research and development over five years. The top-secret GPS project that the team used in a bid to shave precious moments off their times doesn't appear to have made a difference, he said.
But he hoped the Own the Podium program does not disappear. "It doesn't take just four years to create a great team. It takes years and years of support," Mr. Guay said.
Brent Morrice, head of Ski Jumping Canada, said Canada should spend more on the Nordic sports of ski jumping, biathlon and cross-country skiing if the country ever wants to really own the podium at the Winter Games. The Own the Podium program pumped money mostly to top-ranked athletes who had a shot to win and left sports like ski jumping with barely any funds. "If you want to win the Winter Olympics, you can't ignore Nordic sports."
Some athletes rallied around the program Tuesday. "I can honestly say that I would not have this [gold medal]in my hand without the Own the Podium program," said Canadian ice dancer Scott Moir, who won gold Monday night with his partner Tessa Virtue.
"There's no way you can do it without help from your country and help from many supporters," Mr. Moir said.
With reports from Jane Armstrong, and Dave Ebner and Dawn Walton in Whistler