Health and high performance: Striking a balance in federal funding

By Jason

As Canadian athletes, we have it better today than at any other time in our country’s sporting history. The financial support made available to both able-bodied and para high performance athletes in recent years has risen to an all-time high. Policies such as the direct athlete support provided through Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program, the core funding provided to National Sport Organizations, the unprecedented 5 million dollars over five years extended to the Canadian Paralympic Committee after the Vancouver 2010 Games and the Own the Podium initiative created in 2005 collectively make Canada a world leader in high performance sport speak. More money than ever before is being poured into our Canadian sport system.

Speaking as a national team athlete, the support is terrific — and you never want to bite the hand that feeds you! But this does not mean that we shouldn’t take an objective look at what is happening around us. Working in the disability health promotion field has been an eye-opener for me because, in truth, the health of Canadians with a disability falls under the radar. As para athletes, we are being supported in our pursuit of excellence as never before. Yet our federal government is tuned out as to the exclusion, stigma and isolation that sees one in seven Canadians with a disability relegated to the sidelines.

The organization I work for, the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability (ALACD), was created in 1989 to promote physical activity as an integral part of the daily lives of Canadians with disabilities. Access to physical activity is especially important for people with a disability as it enhances health and wellness, prevents development of secondary disabling conditions, reduces depression and isolation, improves physical literacy, promotes independence and mitigates the burden on our health care system. ALACD leverages a well-established grassroots national delivery system of 160 partner organizations to deliver awareness and first-contact initiatives promoting the inclusion of Canadians of all abilities in active living opportunities. ALACD programs have been adopted in Sweden, Jamaica, Australia and South Korea. But in recent years, the work of the organization has been compromised by significant decreases in federal funding — its future is in question. This is consistant with a decline in federal support of health promotion across all sectors — and sharply contrasted with the substantial investment in high performance sport!

I will be the first to acknowledge the perceived bias here — I work for an organization which may soon have to close its doors. But quite aside from that, this story needs to be told because it is not being heard. It is lost in the hype of recent announcements such as that made by federal Minister of State for Sport Bal Gosal committing over 2 million dollars of additional funding to eleven organizations that oversee summer sports. From an athlete’s perspective, this support is appreciated. But you need only look at the timing of this announcement — early March, just a few weeks shy of the end of the fiscal year — to realize that it feels like  leftover money. Sport grabs the media’s attention and its hard not to take the cynical view that diverting unused dollars to these sports is an opportunistic public relations stunt. Two million dollars (or a fraction of that amount!) would go a long way in the non-for-profit sector and would greatly enhance the capacity of organizations with the expertise and a proven track record of successful health promotion initiatives to do what they do well. With better planning and a view to the system as a whole, could there have been an opportunity to invest in our physical activity and sport infrastructure so as to build it from the bottom up rather than the top down?

Our government is not completely oblivious to the issue. In 2007 the government launched the Canadian Children’s Fitness Tax credit (CFTC). The CFTC offers a non-refundable tax credit of up to $500 (non-refundable tax credits only help those who pay tax) which parents may claim upon registering their child in an approved physical activity program, meaning that parents are eligible for a maximum rebate of $75. Children with a disability are eligible for the tax credit up to the age of eighteen as opposed to the eligible age of sixteen among able-bodied children. Parents of children with a disability may claim an additional $500 on top of the basic allowance as long as a minimum of $100 is paid on registration or membership fees in a prescribed program of physical activity. These parents are also able to include specialized equipment as well as transportation costs in their claim (for further information here).

But is there any evidence to suggest that the CFTC has led to increased physical activity levels among Canadian children and youth with a disability? It may be too early to know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the tax credit has had a major positive impact. A 2010 paper published by Dr John Spence and colleagues (click here for full document) states that, generally, it is the parents with higher incomes who register their children in organized physical activity programs. These individuals tend to be more aware of the CFTC and to have used it in the past. The CFTC seems to benefit those already enrolled in physical activity programs but does little to attract new participants. Spence and colleagues stated that a lack of resources meant they were unable to isolate CFTC usage among families with a child with a disability but that they predict the uptake of the CFTC among these families would be low and they are committed to further research into this area.

Then there are those parents who do not wish to register their child in organized sport — they will not benefit from the CFTC incentive. This point is made by economist Kevin Milligan in an April 2011 blog in the Globe and Mail (read article here). Milligan asks us to consider the people who like to go running or who prefer gardening? The tax credit is intended to promote health among Canadian children and youth but it does so by subsidizing structured programs — one aspect of community physical activity only. Very often, organized programs are inaccessible, unaffordable and intimidating to a person with a disability. It’s probably safe to say that the experience a person has early-on with physical activity will very likely define their thinking and ultimately the place that sport and recreation will play in their lives. Milligan identifies the need for programs aimed at education and targeted to at-risk communities. Providing funding to physical activity programs directly, or offering subsidized program access to low-income families, is another alternative proposed by obesity researcher Travis Saunders.

What seems clear is that our government regards high performance sport and health promotion as mutually exclusive. They are not. Today’s generation of high performance athletes may be poised to pursue medals this summer. But what about tomorrow? The bottom is falling out of our sport delivery system because the government does not recognize the interconnection of health and sport. They are ignoring the historical precedent wherein health promotion and sport were overseen by a single federal secretariat up to the early 1990′s. Incidentally, Canada was among the very best Paralympic nations at that time — we have slipped in recent years! There are other factors which contribute to this shift including the emergence of developing nations as Paralympic powerhouses, but the close ties between health and sport are part of the backdrop at that time. Today, organizations who are in the business of health promotion are increasingly trying to align themselves with Sport Canada because the funding available through this channel is the key to their survival. For many of these organizations, working with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is essentially a lost cause and the “relationship” between PHAC and Sport Canada is disfunctional and broken.

What will help to fix our system is the recognition that health and sport go together. Our government has an opportunity to support effective and systematic program delivery in building a culture of health for Canadians of all abilities. Inclusive physical activity can be a catalyst to future success in every arena of Canadian life, most notably the arena of athlete development. Ultimately I think it comes down to a hard choice between instant gratification and making a commitment to the whole system that will lead to sustained involvement at every point along the participation and sport continuum. I hope that in the years to come our government will serve Canada well by doing the right thing.

27 thoughts on “Health and high performance: Striking a balance in federal funding

  1. I’m not sure the government “regards high performance sport and health promotion as mutually exclusive” so much as it sees political gain from the success of elite athletes it can have its politicians meet and greet, but sees almost no way to capitalize on the physical and emotional health of the general population. It’s not so much a policy, as it is just political reality for a government that is concerned about political gain more than it wants to see legitimate improvement in the lives of Canadians. As priceless as such changes might prove to be, how can they take any credit for a very difficult to measure improvement in “health”? A medal, however, now THAT we can measure. Money handed out to our already well off constituent base, now THAT they can see.

    I think you have spotlighted one more example of the deeply flawed consequences that occur as a result of the over valuing of elite performance and organized sport, as opposed to “participation” kinds of programs focused on the physical and mental health of Canadians of all ages and abilities.

    I have no solution to the issue other than the cultural changes we have seen discussed here before. It’s pretty hard to convince a hockey mom that she should forego her paltry (but real) tax break so some kid she will never know might get a chance to take part in a sport she sees as a “dead end” in terms of potential celebrity. Her kid’s “gonna play in the big leagues”, and she needs the money to get him there.

    Good blog.

  2. The “political gain” that comes from supporting elite athletes who win medals is because voters want to see Canada win.

    Make no mistake, if voters wanted less medals the government would axe OTP and cut funding all over the place quicker than you could blink an eye. So in the end you can’t blame the politicians as a previous commenter did.

    Do you remember all those Olympics when we (Canada) sucked? (You don’t have to go back very far… Almost every Olympics until 2010.)

    Canadians got very tired of that (or resigned to it in some cases) and most that I know are quite pleased that we are now somewhat of a force to contend with at an international Games. (Is it too early to say that? maybe…)

    The “typical Canadian” loves high performance sport – witness Hockey Night in Canada setting viewership records with the Canucks run last season, witness the way Canada bonded behind our 2010 Olympic team…

    I like the concept of pond hockey and pick-up baseball as much as the next guy but I don’t think disbanding the NHL and the Olympics will mean more of that stuff.

    However, I suppose I shouldn’t just engage with Larry again on the alleged “evils” of high performance/pro sports…

    Back to the blog post… I was a bit surprised by this stat from the second paragraph:

    “Yet our federal government is tuned out as to the exclusion, stigma and isolation that sees one in seven Canadians with a disability relegated to the sidelines.”

    If you are keeping score at home, that means that 6 out of 7 disabled Canadians are NOT relegated to the sidelines.

    Maybe I settle easily… go ahead, call me easy to please, but is that not pretty damn good? To be quite honest I would be happy with 6 out 7 ABLE-BODIED Canadians not relegated to the sidelines.

    I’m heading out on a limb here (as I have no article or paper to cite) but it seems to me that we are following a recipe that Australia has used well for years – ( generally: target the sports that we excel at, and fund high performance to try to be the best in the world)… And don’t those Aussie’s have a rep for being one of the most active and healthy nations around?

    Might be stretching it to establish a causal relatinship from those facts but here’s more… It turns out those Aussies are competitive as hell, and as a nation they love to win at their sports (swimming) just like we do at ours (hockey). National sporting pride and a love of play comes (in part) from 20 million sets of eyes watching the home town boy/girl WIN… Matt Biondi, 5 golds in 1988 (AUS) or Sydney Crosby burying that goal to win gold in Vancouver in 2010 (CAN).

    I like what we are doing as a Nation when it comes to sports… especially if that 6 out of 7 stat is anything to go by.

  3. Meyrick, it seems to me that the essence of your argument is that elite sport must be good because so many people like it. The logical fallacy that popularity means it’s good for you is just that, a complete fallacy.

    MacDonalds sells millions of Big Macs. They are very popular. That does not, however, make them good for you in any way whatsoever. In fact, the popularity of Big Macs is exactly the reason they are so bad for the culture as a whole. It would take a vast cultural change to rid society of the “evils” of fast food. Only a cultural change (that means a change in what is popular) will prevent the “evils” of elite sport.

    I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.

  4. You’re right. In a grossly simplified way my argument is that elite sport is popular therefore it must be good.

    There is no major culture, race or group, at this time in history or any other time in documented history, that has not in some way created/admired/endorsed some sort of athletic elitism.

    So you can fight it and complain that it creates problems, but it is human nature to compete and admire those who excel in a physical sense.

    Actually, when it comes to ANYTHING that requires skill there will always be a market for people to be entertained by those who, through talent, hard work (and perhaps some government investment), acquire a high level of skill.

    Music – is a $100 million dollar U2 concert tour somehow the reason for a decline in guitar playing amongst children? Or do more kids play because U2 is cool and they hear music they like?

    Theatre – is the major investment that goes into a Broadway show partly to blame for the decline of grassroots theatre? Or does the highest level of theatre inspire people to get into acting?

    Art – couldn’t all those rooms at the Louvre be used to allow access to art classes and supplies for French kids instead of displaying the world’s greatest art? Or maybe access to that great art inspires more people than grassroots art classes would?

    You can fall on either side of these debates, but the point that remains is that humans find skillfulness entertaining – that won’t change.

    Humans will pay to watch or listen to the best, they’ll create Halls of Fame and make pilgrimages decades later to remember someone they liked or admired. If they own companies they’ll want to sponsor and associate with the best. And… humans will enjoy uniting behind something – like a team, or an individual, and it will be even more compelling those times when an entire nation is watching – united.

    To continually fight this basic fact of life is futile.

  5. I evaluated para-nordic (skiing) medals and found that the greater number of Canadians competing the greater number of medals won. Climbing on my hobby horse, if the rest of the world used Canadian selection criteria (possible medal or top 1/2), in 3 paralympics there would be no competitors left to compete because there would no less than 8 competitors. I think that any competitor that made the IPC criteria the athlete should be allowed to compete for Canada.

    OTP no longer support development athletes (they did until 2007). Who does? Do athletes appear my magic? In PN, it takes 10 years.

    Too bad the health budget does not support healthy outcomes only acute care. Because StatCan no longer does Disability stats, we no longer will know much about the numbers, health and income of the disabled.

  6. All of human “progress”, all advances in civilization, all of our political and social history, from the original caves onward, has been an attempt to overcome the most base and “unhelpful” aspects of human nature to make our lives better. To a very great extent, we have made marvelous advances over “human nature”. I see no reason to not continue that progress in every way that we can find to do so. I think it’s a very good thing men have stopped smacking women with big sticks and dragging them home, for example.

    I have no problem with the enjoyment of art, or music, or athletic skill. I do, however, have issues with the way that enjoyment is being manipulated and exploited to the detriment of the vast majority of our society, in the name of economic benefit to a very few. Surely you can understand that, ” 20 million sets of eyes watching the home town boy/girl WIN” is not a really good situation for the health of participatory sport. I want to see 20 million participants, not 20 million spectators.

    The present culture of sport that sees the participation of a very few “representatives” (whether of our home town, or our country) whom the rest of us are supposed to adore, adulate, pay handsomely, and then purchase whatever products they negotiate contracts to sell to us, is not something I see as an improvement in our social and cultural lives. I see it as quite harmful, actually.

    I agree that it is, in fact, part of our basic human nature that is being exploited, but I do not agree with that we should just throw up our hands and join the adoring throngs. I like to think we have evolved to the point where we can move beyond our most basic human natures and actually decide how our future will unfold – what aspects of our culture we will support – what aspects we should change for the better of everyone. I do not accept the argument that it’s just the way we are, so we should just put up with it.

    So while I too find athletic skill fun to watch, I do not believe tax money should be used to build stadiums, make people homeless so you can build condos, build super highways to ski resorts that are so expensive only rich people can go there, pay fat chemical laden baseball players vast fortunes while disabled athletes have no where to just play, or spend fortunes designing programs so that some hired stranger can win a gold medal.

    I think sport culture needs to be changed, and I am optimistic enough about the human race to believe we could – if we just made up our minds to do so. I agree that it is ” human nature to compete and admire those who excel in a physical sense”. I don’t believe that means we should devote wildly disproportionate social resources to a very few. I believe that when as a society we support that disproportionate allocation of resources, we marginalize, disrespect, and discourage the athletic and social development of the vast majority – we actually do harm.

    I think I said this once before on these blogs, but I’m going to say it again because I have come to believe it is really important. Some of the most dangerous ideas of any time period are always included in those ideas that the people of that time period call “common sense”. Cultural changes of any importance always include the realization that something that was thought to be just common sense, was actually quite wrong.

  7. I’m listening to the arguments on both sides here with mixed emotions. As an athlete I have certainly benefitted from the money channelled into sport. And I personally joined rowing after watching Silken Laumann in the 1992 Olympics – and not because I thought I would make the Olympic team – I just wanted to get in a boat. So I do believe that elite performance can inspire children and adults to take up recreational sport. But… when I’m participating in sport I have no illusions that my performances will somehow improve the health of Canadians – that seems more than a little vain.

    I wonder if our problem isn’t that we continue to justify federal expenditures on sport on the premise that this is an investment in health. Why not recognize that it is an investment in elite sport – for the purpose of entertainment, international status, etc. And then as a separate budget item invest in physical activity for heath?

    I attended a presentation last year by a Danish Phd student – he has been travelling Denmark taking photos of innovative recreation/play spaces – urban spaces that promote a variety of sports, physical activity and play. They had some very very cool ideas. They also have very high rates of participation in physical activity. I remembered him mentioning as a side note that in Denmark ‘elite sport’ and ‘sport for masses’ are funded separately and are two completely different government departments – and that ‘sport for masses’ is prioritized. I found this link – it describes their system better than I can. Personally I think this has some interesting potential – what do you think? http://www.denmark.dk/en/menu/Lifestyle/SportAndLeisure/Danish-Sport-Culture/The-danish-sport-culture.htm

  8. It’s pretty obvious that any individual participation in sport will do little for the health of Canada, but it is just as obvious that mass participation has the potential for significant improvement. How much would Canadian Health Care save if we were all active?

    Andrea, your rowing story is interesting. You said that your interest that watching Silken Loumann inspired was ” not because I thought I would make the Olympic team – I just wanted to get in a boat”. My question would be then: what makes you think an Olympic athlete was necessary, or could that inspiration have occurred from watching any rowing club?

    I don’t believe there is nearly as much inspiration from elite athletes as sport mythology wants us to believe. I think more kids took up golf because a parent let them tag along and whack a ball down a fairway with one club, than were ever inspired by Tiger. I think rowing and paddling families created more paddlers and rowers than Silken ever did. Friends playing at the beach creates more swimmers than Michael Phelps. More lifetime skiers came out of family trips to the hill than from watching Eric Read on TV. Participating in stuff creates more participants than watching elite performances that are, in truth, impossible for almost anyone else on the planet.

    The Danish example is interesting. They believe “the distinguishing feature of Danish sports is the broad base, firmly established in both town and country everywhere; even the smallest village has at least one football field and a gymnasium or sports hall.”

    But their fundamental idea that, “It is an official political objective that Danish sports should be for everyone” is an example of a difference in cultural values. Their “parallel” elite athlete programs were quite successful early on (got gold medals) but have been less so lately because of “stronger international competition” which I expect is the result of more money being spent on elite athletes in other countries (like Canada, for instance). And therein lies the real problem.

    If winning gold medals is allowed to become the measure of a program’s success, then such elite programs will inevitably require more and more resources as other countries spend more. It becomes an “athletic arms race” that can have no end. Competition at the elite levels needs more money as the training methods, technology of the sport, lifestyle requirements, and simple dedication required continue to escalate. The “cost” of a gold medal keeps rising. In contrast, I think the “value” of a gold medal to the society paying for it goes down. The value to the athlete, as media attention, celebrity, and endorsements all increase, goes up considerably, but the society gets almost nothing (not even more participation) from the increased expenditures. And often (certainly in Canada) the programs designed for the masses lose out as the elite programs demand more.

    And here we get an interesting comparison between Denmark and Canadian views of elite sport. The Danish elite program works on this philosophy: ” Team Danmark should implement, coordinate and improve joint initiatives for elite sports in Denmark. But it was emphasised that this should not happen at any and every cost. Thus, it was, and remains, a characteristic of Team Danmark’s activities that the organisation, in a socially responsible way, provides active athletes with opportunities to qualify for the labour market, as well as for a sports career at international level.”

    The inclusion of “should not happen at any and every cost”, and the fact that Danes think athletes should actually prepare to have jobs too, “provides active athletes with opportunities to qualify for the labour market”, are interesting ideas. It may also explain why their elite program is not winning quite as many gold medals as it used to. They understand that gold medals are NOT the main reason for a culture to design a sports program. Gold medals are just not as important as participatory, healthy, socially integrating, programs designed to improve the lives of people through sports. Sports (not even gold medals) are just not as important as real life.

  9. For the record… If anyone thought I was arguing for cancelling grassroots programs to pay for elite programs that was NOT the gist of what I was saying.

    I believe there is an argument to be made for BOTH and that both need to exist for everything to work.

    In essence the only reason I keep writing about it is that I think (like the Danes) that there in NOTHING WRONG with elite sport and government investing in it.

    Obviously, the difficult part is the balance.

    Interestingly, I don’t think you’d ever find that an “elite” would say all grassroots programs should be cancelled… but in this case we have a proponent of the grassroots level saying that elitism is “bad” (simplification but basically what you are saying).

    I am all for BOTH and I think that government’s job is to do the best they can to find a balance that creates success on as many levels as possible. The Danes are doing it one way and we are doing it another… I don’t actually think the methods are that different…

  10. The funding tension isn’t just high performance vs health – it’s high performance vs entry level competition (particularly for people on low incomes or with disability related equipment or other additional costs).

    I’m a newbie Australian paratriathlete (half a season in the sport). We don’t have any sort of paratri program here yet, so I’m on my own – unless or until I podium at the Paratri World Championships. I’m a student, with a typical student’s low income. Triathlon is an expensive sport, even more so for athletes with disability. If I didn’t have some savings, I would be forced to drop out of the sport (my parents were homeowners – sold the house after they died).

    • You raise an excellent point M. We tend to position these debates as having two sides to them but the reality is far more nuanced. It’s not just about funding one ‘vision of sport’ or another – it’s about how and where we deliver that funding. You’re not the first athlete I’ve heard say we need to spend more money at athletes in the development stages – once they win a world championships they can find their own sponsors!

      Thanks for bringing an Australian perspective to the post – I think you might be interested to know that when I was interviewing Canadian athletes for another project many of them referenced the sport system in Australia and felt Australian athletes were much better supported in terms of sport services. But from what you’re saying that support is far from universal.

  11. In general, Australia does have good sports development pathways. But no, not universal.

    As a paratriathlete, the following options are open to me:
    * mainstream triathlon clubs/coaches (mine is generally newbie friendly – many aren’t – but doesn’t have a clue about disability. When I was new to the club, they tried to get me to do a jump mount)
    * more specialist cycling, running or swimming coaching
    * one-off small grants (eg $2000) – I can think of two I’d be eligible for (might pay for a bike/modifications, a year’s coaching etc)
    * much to my surprise, I was accepted on Team Rocket-XOSIZE

    To get an Australian Institute of Sport scholarship as a paratriathlete, tho? You need to get a World Champs podium: http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/sports/triathlon/scholarships/ais_triathlon_program_selection_policy

    No pathway leading to that level. Obviously, with paratri being accepted into Rio Paralympics, that may (and probably will) change.

    That doesn’t help me now, either with “how can I adapt this? what techniques do triathletes with similar impairments use?” or with “it’s clear I’m going to be good at this triathlon thing, but how can I afford to keep going”.

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