BEIJING — Jane Rumball is about to start medical school and Heather Mandoli is getting married next spring so a few extra bucks for making the podium this weekend at the Olympic rowing regatta would certainly come in handy.
The Beijing Olympics marks the first time Canada’s athletes will receive cash for medals. A gold will be worth $20,000, a silver $15,000 and a bronze $10,000.
As of Wednesday, no Canadian athlete had cashed in yet.
Rumball and Mandoli are hoping they’ll qualify for a cheque with a podium performance in the women’s eight on Sunday.
While both women say they didn’t become Olympic athletes for the money, they admit every little bit helps.
"We’ve come to this level for the pure love and joy of the sport," said Rumball, a native of Fredericton. "Anything above that is a bonus. But I think it’s excellent for the next generation of athletes that we would have this kind of incentive program."
The Canadian Olympic Committee announced last November that it would offer incentives for medals through its Athletes Excellence Fund. The move was part of the organization’s decision to concentrate its efforts more toward achieving results at Olympic Games and less on spreading money thinly across a wide range of programs.
The COC set a goal to finish atop the medal table at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and to be among the top 16 countries in Beijing.
Canada won just 12 medals four years ago in Athens — three gold, six silver, and three bronze.
Canada is not the first country to offer cash incentives at the Olympics. Several other countries have written cheques — in some cases very hefty ones — to their medallists.
An athlete from the Philippines who wins gold in Beijing, for example, will head home with 15 million pesos (C$360,000), while a Russian gold medallist will collect C$50,000 for gold from the government, plus lucrative bonuses from various private sources that could add up to as much as C$500,000 in housing, cars and cash.
Victoria rower Iain Brambell is the chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Council and was involved in coming up with the initiative. He said Canada wanted to be realistic with its incentives so that they can continue to be offered in future Games.
"It just seemed that this was a mark that was sustainable," said Brambell. "It’s not one where we would throw these great numbers out there and then all of a sudden get to the next Games and not be able to reward them."
Athletes who win medals in Beijing won’t get their cheques the second they step off the podium. Brambell says they will receive them soon after they return home.
The performance awards apply to all Olympic sports and are the same whether athletes are in a team or individual event.
"What we first and foremost said is that we’d like it to be equal — a medal should be a medal," said Brambell. "Our number one priority was to make sure we rewarded every individual medal the same way whether it came from an individual or a team."
Brambell says one objective of the program is to keep athletes in the system longer.
"We want to retain those particular athletes as long as we can," said Brambell. "Not only to hopefully win more medals but, more importantly, to have younger athletes learn from them."
Fellow rower Dave Calder says he thinks the program is great but wonders if the money could be better used to develop younger athletes.
"It’s rewarding those who’ve already made it," said Calder. "We need to help those who are breaking onto the scene.
"I think that money should maybe (be) allocated somewhere else until we have a bigger pot."
Brambell said there is money being spent on development but because it’s not a cheque in hand athletes don’t necessarily see it.
"In a lot of cases it’s several years out that they’re looking at identifying those athletes and making sure they’re being brought through that whole cycle," he said.
Veteran kayaker David Ford, also a member of the Athletes’ Council, thinks it’s a step in the right direction for Canadian sport.
"I think it’s an important step just in terms of culture in Canada to say that we are going to value medals beyond just a pat on the back," he said this week after finishing sixth in the men’s slalom event. "I think that until we sort of say that we can be winners and we expect to be winners, which is what offering those incentives does, I think that we’re not going to be the number one nation in 2010 or beyond."
He admits Canada still has a ways to go compared to other countries.
"It’s maybe not the numbers that people would like it to be," said the 41-year-old Edmonton native. "But I think it’s a step in the right direction."
Offering cash incentives to its top athletes has been the subject of debate in Canada for more than two decades.
Ford says he was surprised that it finally came together.
"With team sports and everything else, it was difficult to find numbers that made sense and wasn’t going to be unrealistic," he said. "I was surprised at how willing people were to have that discussion."
A quick look at countries that offer cash incentives to their Olympic medallists:
– Singapore, which had never won Olympic gold heading into Beijing, is offering close to half a million euros (C$780,000) to any gold medallist.
– Greece is offering 190,000 euros (C$302,000) for gold, 130,000 euros (C$207,000) for silver and 70,000 euros (C$111,000) for bronze. Medallists will also be given a civil service job, along with several lucrative advertising contracts.
– Athletes of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will collect one million dirhams (C$291,200) for gold, 750,000 dirhams (C$218,390) for silver, and 500,000 dirhams (C$145,600) for bronze.
– Malaysia is offering one million ringgit (C$321,000) for a gold medal.
– The Dominican Republic, for the first time ever, is paying between C$90,000 and C$200,000, plus a new car to winners.
– Kenyans will collect 750,000 shillings (C$11,880) for gold, 500,000 shillings (C$7,920) and 250,000 shillings (C$3,960) for silver and bronze, respectively.
– Japan will dole out 19,000 euros (C$30,250) for gold, 12,500 euros (C$19,900) for silver, and 6,300 euros (C$10,030) for bronze.
– Germany, which won 48 medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, will pay 15,000 euros (C$24,000) for an Olympic victory.