Retirement doesn't pay for amateur athletes

ALISON KORN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

The silence -- from amateur athletes and teams usually eager for attention -- is conspicuous: Nobody wants to announce their retirement.

Among Canada's team of some 300 athletes who competed at the Beijing Olympics, nary a word has been spoken, on the record anyway, about who is continuing and who is not. The reason? Funding.

Top national team athletes receive $1,500 a month from the Athlete Assistance Program administered by Sport Canada. Athletes who retire are cut off within two months of announcing their decision. So, and this is sad but true, some choose not to announce anything for as long as possible.

Others bite the bullet and do the honourable thing. Like Synchro Canada, which yesterday announced the official retirements from competition of five of its national team athletes.

"It's time to move on to the next chapter of my life," Jennifer Song of Calgary said. "As much passion as I had for synchro, I'm ready to find new passion for the future."

Song, 25, a seven-year national team member, considers the 2008 Olympic Games and 2005 world championship in Montreal the highlights of her career.

Synchro Canada was a bit ahead of other national sport organizations in giving its 10 Olympic team members a fall deadline to make up their minds, because it has been holding spots for them at the national aquatic training centre in Montreal. The centre has expanded to include 24 athletes, so for every Olympian who opts out, another space is available for a promising new athlete.

Other synchronized swimmers now retiring include Olympians Marie-Pierre Gagne, Jessika Dubuc and Dominika Kopcik, as well as National B Team member Megan Poss.

"The contributions made by these athletes to the national team program have been exceptional," Synchro Canada chief operating officer Catherine Gosselin-Despres said. "Hopefully we will be able to keep these individuals involved and use their experiences to benefit our young swimmers."

Kudos to Synchro for its transparency, though being totally truthful in this case impacts the bottom line of its athletes.

Abuses of the Athlete Assistance Program -- people pretending to train while slacking off -- are rare. But I do recall attending a wedding involving an athlete whose post-Olympic commitment to training had become sketchy, but who still was receiving funding -- leading to comments about Sport Canada indirectly paying for the yummy buffet.

At the same time, it's hard to blame an athlete for trying to extend the gravy train a bit longer. When you have been living off loans and you are not sure what's in your future, shouldn't athletes be entitled to a year of, let's call it, support payments to help ease the transition?

LIMITED BUDGET

"Many athletes have a hard time getting jobs right after retirement," Song said. "Also, some athletes go back to their home town or move to a new city, so there are lots of expenses in the first couple of months. However, I understand the limited budget and that they also need to cover current athletes."

There is one avenue of financial relief for amateur athletes who retire. Those who have been receiving Sport Canada funding for a minimum of three years can receive "readjustment support" through a special-needs application, if they're poor enough. Synchro Canada makes sure all its athletes are aware of this opportunity, which can grant a maximum of $5,000 per year per person.

Song, for one, will be applying.

"It will definitely help me to settle down for a new start," she said.

This is the closest thing to a retirement fund for amateur athletes. But the fact that it's based on need, not performance or longevity, is a flaw.

Many mediocre folks who lose their jobs still get some kind of severance package. If only the same could be said for top athletes.


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