Olympic athletes may dream of gold but there are few riches along the way.
While some government and athletic organization support is available, athletes count on a small legion of sponsors to help them pay the bills and ensure they have the equipment and clothing they need to pursue their quest.
Biathlete Zina Kocher is grateful for the more than a dozen sponsors who have stepped forward to support her and the Canadian biathlon team.
Without their help, it would be much more difficult for athletes to devote themselves 100 per cent to their sport, she said, adding a heavy training schedule leaves little time for anything else.
“Without all these sponsors, you’d just have to (fill) those financial needs by, say, working because we only get so much from Sport Canada and only so much is provided by things like Own the Podium.”
As Canada’s top biathlete, Kocher receives $1,800 a year from Sport Canada. By placing among the top 25 in the world, another $4,000 is available through the International Biathlon Union.
But that still leaves a significant funding gap that must be filled somehow if athletes are going to reach their potential. It is even tougher for developing athletes because less funding is available to those who have not yet reached the level where they have achieved podium finishes and reached a high world ranking.
Kocher and her teammates can count on a wide range of sponsors. Equipment manufacturers such as Atomic provide her with skis, boots and bindings, and Leki provides poles.
There are also major corporate sponsors such as HBC and Rona, which provide financial help to the team.
Smaller sponsors also play an important role. For Kocher, people like Dwayne Loyek, owner of The Runner’s Den in Red Deer, and the city’s 52nd Street Dental Clinic; and from Calgary, law firm Stikeman Elliott, have all stepped up to sponsor her.
The dental endorsement came thanks to her former childhood dentist who passed away but her daughter and fiance continued the practice and the sponsorship.
Kocher met lawyers with Stikeman Elliott at an event for Right to Play, an organization that promotes sports activities for children. As she chatted with her neighbours at the table, the start of a partnership was formed. She later met with them, signed a contract and now the law firm provides funding help. Most recently, they helped her buy a pair of stocks for her biathlon rifle at $800 apiece.
Athletes can also apply for various scholarships and grants, such as Team Investors Group Amateur Athletes Fund, which was set up by Investors Group financial services and provides 20 bursaries each year of $5,000. The not-for-profit Can Fund has also helped Kocher. Set up in 1997, Can Fund has supported hundreds of athletes with up to $12,000 a year.
Loyek, of The Runner’s Den, said he has known Kocher for years. “It was just one of those situations where she came into the store and she was needing some shoes and some clothing.”
He and the young athlete got talking about her sport and the conversation turned to funding.
“I asked her what she had for sponsorship. Obviously, we can’t provide any biathlon gear but (could provide) her training shoes and clothing. It just kind of went from there and we signed a contract to provide her with training gear for her training outside the skiing part.
“It just continued on straight through to now.”
Loyek now supplies the clothing and shoes that Kocher, and fellow Olympian skeleton racer Mellisa Hollingsworth, use for their dryland training.
It’s a partnership that has worked well for Kocher and the business. Kocher has made appearances at the Red Deer store and The Runner’s Den has been able to use Kocher in advertising.
“She’s been awesome to work with,” he said.
“There’s not any huge funding out there for most athletes. So any time they can get something they need and not have to pay out of pocket takes a lot of stress out of the situation.
“Any amount is important to both the athletes and I know it is well appreciated.”
Ed Dittrich, owner of Red Deer’s Dittrich Machine Services, is among those who have stepped up to help support an athlete — in this case, Eckville skeleton racer and Turin 2006 bronze medallist Mellisa Hollingsworth.
Dittrich said he got involved as a sponsor after meeting Mellisa’s father Doug a number of years ago. He was building a motorbike from scratch and Dittrich did some machining work for the project.
“Basically, I said to Doug just before Christmas to let Mellisa know we would help her out and help her fulfil her dream and help sponsor her.
“I just wrote her out a cheque and said ‘Mellisa, this is to help you fulfil your Olympic dream, and use it where you need it.’
“It takes a bit of expense to do what they are doing. They get help from a lot of different people. And every little bit helps so we thought we would just contribute a little bit to help her out.”
Dittrich is looking forward to catching her in action on TV.
“I think it’s important that people should try to help out as many people as they can.
“It’s not like the professionals like the hockey players, who don’t need anything. These other athletes of course do need funding and help out in any way we can.” Dittrich was touched that Hollingsworth put his company’s logo up on her website at www.mellisahollingsworth.ca
The company’s name appears amid an eclectic mix, including TAQA, an energy company from Abu Dhabi; The Main Dish, from Calgary, a sponsor of five Olympians; Bellatrix Exploration Ltd.; Ontario sled maker Davenport Skeleton Sleds; and Red Deer’s The Runner’s Den.