Amber Hildebrandt - Friday Feb. 14, 2014 22:01 ET

Cash for Gold? Canada ranks low in Olympic medal incentives

Medal rewards top $200,000 in some countries

Yuzuru Hanyu, Patrick Chan and Denis Ten at figure skating flower ceremony
Yuzuru Hanyu (centre) won gold, Patrick Chan (left) got silver, but Kazakhstan's Denis Ten (right) may be the real winner in Sochi based on cash rewards for medals. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

When Kazakh skater Denis Ten won a bronze medal in men’s figure skating on Friday, he also earned a $82,500 cash reward from his home country.

Had he won gold, though, that payment from his oil-rich but medal-starved nation would’ve topped $270,000 – one of the highest cash-for-medal rewards offered by the dozens of nations competing at the Sochi Games.

Canada, meanwhile, ranks among the countries offering the lowest amounts for Olympic medallists.

Canadian skater Patrick Chan, for example, would’ve received $20,000 – a mere sliver of the Kazakhstan amount – if he’d managed to secure the gold. He got silver instead – and with that, $15,000.

“The Canadian Olympic Committee is sitting on a lot of cash,” said Lucie Thibault, a Brock University professor who studies athlete assistance programs. “So could they provide more money to athletes? Absolutely!”

Canada began doling out financial rewards at the 2008 Beijing Games. 

Under the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Athletic Excellence fund, gold medallists get $20,000, silver nets $15,000 and bronze takes home $10,000. Starting at the 2012 London Games, Canada included coaches, giving them half the amount of the star athletes.

Just an 'added bonus'

Whether or not cash incentives motivate athletes to bring home a medal is a matter of debate.

For three-time Olympic wrestling medallist, Tonya Verbeek, the cash didn’t matter.

“To be honest, I didn’t even think about it,” said Verbeek. She called the money an “added bonus,” but not substantial enough to factor into motivation.

Of the 26 countries that responded to questions about their cash-for-medals programs, Canada’s sits at the second lowest rung ahead of Australia, which gives gold-medal athletes just a few hundred dollars less.

The United States – among the Olympic medal heavyweights – offers $7,000 more than Canada for gold, though the nations are comparable for silver and bronze.

Many other countries that score high in medal counts offer much more. Germany gives $30,000, while the 2014 host country, Russia, allots $125,000.

When it comes to countries like Canada that have collected several hundred medals over the years, most offer in the range of $30,000 to $60,000.

The biggest rewards go to gold medallists in Kazakhstan ($270,000), Latvia ($213,000) and Italy ($210,000).

Cash-for-medal quirks

A handful of countries refuse to buy into the cash-for-medal notion, including Croatia, Greece and even countries like Great Britain, Norway and Sweden that typically rake in the medals.

A few have quirky disclaimers.

Austria hands out gold coins, not cash, worth around $24,000. Finland nearly doubles the amount given to those playing its national sport, hockey.

Slovakia, on the other hand, reduces the amount per person for such team sports. But the central European country doles out money not only to coaches, but also to doctors, physiotherapists and technicians who help winning athletes.

And Germany doesn’t stop at medallists. Any athlete placing in fourth to eighth is compensated with up to $7,500.

When it comes to Canada, it’s worth noting that the cash reward is taxed.

“The $20,000 is like a drop in the bucket, and then it’s taxable as well,” said Thibault.

Also, Paralympians don’t receive a cent.

“The Canadian Paralympic Committee would love to be able to award money for medals, but we are not in a financial position to be able to do so,” committee spokeswoman, Alison Korn, wrote in an email.

Canada improving

Ultimately, cash-for-medal programs are only one part of the financial picture for amateur athletes before and after the games. 

Here in Canada, the likelihood of an Olympian securing a corporate endorsement is small. Most won’t snag the multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals some American athletes do.

“From a marketing perspective, it’s such a unique and almost quite frankly, unfortunate situation for most,” said Cheri Bradish, the research chair in sports marketing at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management. “It’s such a brief spotlight for these athletes so I really do think you have to be savvy.”

Bradish sees sponsorship potential in Quebec's Dufour-Lapointe sisters, snowboarder Mark McMorris and freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau, but they might be the rare few.

What matters the most to the athletes is ongoing support as they slog to realize their dream.

Thibault notes that Canadian athletes have access to “different pools of money” over the years, from the Own The Podium support to financial help from private organizations like the Canadian Athletes Now Fund and B2ten.

“All these programs didn’t exist in the past so it’s really helpful,” said Thibault.

Wrestling medallist Verbeek agrees. She says that over her 20-year career, she’s witnessed improvements in the financial support available for amateur athletes. But while she was able to be a supply teacher to make ends meet in her early years, she notes not everyone is so lucky.

“There are athletes out there who do struggle and I know that and I feel that,” said Verbeek. “We always can aim higher and look to improve.”

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