Mirela Rahneva had Canada’s best result in skeleton at the Beijing Olympics, but it came at a cost.
The 33-year-old Ottawa slider flirted with a podium finish last week at the Yanqing National Sliding Center after posting the fastest time in the first of four runs. She then finished fifth.
Rahneva estimated her costs to compete this season at nearly $30,000 and in a social media post on Friday asked where the national team funding was going, saying athletes pay out of pocket for everything. , from flights to accommodation to car rentals and even Canada’s racing fees at World Cups. .
“We saw $0 in support this momentous year,” she posted on Twitter.
“A lot of athletes are really struggling, not just financially but mentally with the struggles of competition,” Rahneva said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.
The Bulgarian-born athlete, who receives $14,000 a year from the federal government’s athlete assistance (or carding) program, tweeted a spreadsheet of costs incurred this season, totaling $26,585.
Where did the money come from?
“It’s been patents, it’s been savings, it’s been grants here and there. Basically, my family and friends funded me,” she said. “I also had a GoFundMe page.”
The program’s lack of support, according to several national team athletes, was probably most evident during the Olympic test event in Beijing in October. Canada did not send any coaches.
Elisabeth Vathje, who was the top Canadian at the event in 13th place, posted a selfie of her badly bruised arm.
“Some of the damage from this trip in October without a coach, we are lucky to come away with nothing but bruises,” she wrote.
The 27-year-old from Calgary said that, with no coaches to help them navigate the track, the huge bruise was caused by repeatedly bumping into the same spot on the track.
“As athletes, we were looking at the track like, oh, I wonder if we could try this line or this line or things like that. So we worked really well together as a team, as athletes.” , she said in an interview. “But we had no feedback between races.
“To think that we can compete with the Germans who have their team of 20 people there is insane.”
Another national team slider, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, said it was difficult not to have a coach at the test event.
“Definitely learning a new ΓÇª track and you have to take the beating to figure it out the hard way, it was really tough,” the athlete said. “It definitely made us stronger as a team, and it made me a better slider.
“But on the other hand, when you watch other teams come in with six different support staff, and in one day they’re able to figure things out, and it takes us two weeks, you stay there and think: what are we doing here?”
The athlete said he also paid for flights, accommodation, rental cars and training out of pocket this season.
What was the final tally?
“I decided to stop keeping track, because it’s a bit painful, but definitely north of 10,000,” they said.
Jane Channell, who was 17th in Beijing, ordered herself a brand new helmet for the Olympics – a gift for herself in a difficult season.
“It was almost like I was wearing my personal little trophy,” said the athlete from North Vancouver, British Columbia. “This season cost me a lot of money because we were all self-funded.
“Everything from coaching to car rental to flights, accommodation, everything, food, everything, it was up to each of us to pay. So that was my Christmas present for myself, my gift of good work, you did it.”
The anger and frustration on social media this week stemmed from a CBC report that the national skeleton program received the largest proportional funding increase of any sports organization this quadrennial, more than doubling its funding since 2018. .
Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium, which recommends the amount of federal funding each sport receives, said the increase came after a drastic cut in funding for the program.
This year, she said, the skeleton received $350,000 — $200,000 for targeted senior athletes and $150,000 for the “NextGen” program for athletes.
Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton president Sarah Storey lamented the suggestion on social media that the money is being funneled away from the athletes.
“We have hardly any staff. It’s as thin an organization as you can get. It really is,” she said in a lengthy interview on Saturday.
“It’s not that we’re taking money from athletes and not spending it on them. $200,000 doesn’t go very far.”
Storey said the Beijing test event was expensive, with the flights alone costing several thousand dollars.
The national organization, she said, covered the costs, but athletes were told they could potentially be asked to pay part retroactively. She hopes to recoup much of those costs so they don’t have to.
Storey said no coaches were sent to the Beijing test event, so BCS could send two additional athletes instead.
Following the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, BCS was rocked by the departure of two-time Olympic bobsleigh champion Kaillie Humphries amid harassment allegations against head coach Todd Hays.
The national organization has launched a culture change initiative.
“We’ve worked very hard to improve the culture of this organization,” Storey said.
“It’s kind of hard when there’s these limited resources, and the frustration about the limited resources to feel, I don’t know, to feel like there’s hope and that’s positive.
“We’re also frustrated. You want to do way more than you can do. And the system isn’t perfect.
“We are optimistic that the investment our financial partners are making in NextGen will reinforce this.”
Humphries won monobob gold for the United States in Beijing.
Meanwhile, some Canadian skeleton athletes suggest the culture change hasn’t gone far enough.
“Would I tell an athlete to compete for Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton? A hundred times no,” Vathje said.
Vathje lost his spot on the Olympic team in a one-race trials event in Whistler in November.
The selection process has drawn criticism from athletes, who were not informed of the criteria until late October.
The November 3 selection race was a sharp turnaround for the athletes who had competed in the Beijing test event.
Vathje said she turned down offers to compete for Austria or Ukraine, but vows never to compete in the sport again.
“I would love to do another sport, potentially,” she said. “But in the skeletal realm, this ship sailed. The skeletal is over. And I rightfully enjoyed the sport.”
Rahneva would love to compete for Canada at the Milan Olympics in 2026, “if I don’t get blacklisted and kicked out of the program,” she said.
Despite the financial costs, she said it was worth it.
“The amount of support, videos, photos I’ve been sent by the kids of people sliding on hardwood floors on towels, makeshift sleds, I think there’s something so good and so pure about the fact that kids see this performance at the Olympics that I will never give up,” she said. “I would spend $50,000 to do it again.
“I just wish I didn’t know there’s money in the program and I spent $50,000 for nothing.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 19, 2022.
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