Alexandra Telford, pictured above, a master of architecture student at Carleton University, was running intervals under the hot California sun this Christmas, deep into a gruelling training camp that was helping her prepare for the upcoming indoor track season.
It was here she received a message from her former teammate, Quinn Lyness, asking her to make a six-month commitment to Canada’s first national track and field league.
Lyness is the founder of the Canadian Track and Field League (CTFL): A new league for elite Canadian athletes to compete in that helps them build their brand, achieve performance standards and make some money—all within Canada.
An athlete himself, Lyness said he’s long been made aware of Canadian athletics’ struggle with lack of funding and fans. The goal of his league is to help with both, Lyness said.
For Telford, the exposure and the chance to make some money are two reasons she decided to register with the league.
Having recently won a bronze medal in the 300 metres at the national U SPORTS championship in March, Telford said she plans to focus solely on improving her performances at the track this summer. Even if it means going a little bit into debt before it begins to pay off.
“Definitely the words ‘keeping myself afloat’ is where my head’s at,” Telford said. “Throughout the summer, I think I’ve set myself up so that I can just train. Come fall I’ll have to see where my performance has gotten me.”
Telford is not alone. Even Canada’s top achievers in track and field, living on the highest monthly allowance from the federal government’s Athlete Assistance Program (AAP), can qualify as low-income. According to Statistics Canada, the low-income cut-off in 2020 for one person living in an area with a population of 500,000 or more, was a revenue of $22,060. The most an athlete can earn off the AAP is $21,180 annually.
The AAP now accounts for the largest percentage of a funded athlete’s income. Making up 47 per cent of their income, these eligible athletes receive $13,613 annually from the AAP, based upon data from the Department of Canadian Heritage in 2018.
In Ontario, the provincial government’s Quest for Gold program provides up to $186,171.20 of financial assistance directly to individual athletes, but only 54 spots are available in this program per year.
The financial situation of a Canadian athlete is anything but simple. With revenue coming in from all sorts of avenues, such as races, government assistance programs, work outside of training and sponsorships, every little bit counts.
26-year-old Telford said even with this assistance available, she’s seen firsthand just how much time and dedication it takes for professional athletes to obtain the funding they need to perform at such a high level. Her teammates at the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, which she’s been a member of since 2010, also struggle financially.
For Lyness, a sprinter with the Ottawa Lions, it was watching his training partner and national medalist Saj Alhaddad pay for training and competitions out of his own pocket that really hit home.
“It’s pretty astonishing to think about,” Lyness said. “That was why I thought about [the league]. I just knew in general, track athletes don’t get paid very much, unless you’re at the top of your game in the world.”
A history of running on empty
Financial burdens are nowhere near a new sensation for Canadian athletes.
In the early 1960s, Bruce Kidd was working as a news reporter for the Toronto Star to keep himself afloat while balancing his life as a university student and a track athlete competing at an international level.
Then, Kidd said Canadian Olympic athletes lived a “bare bones” lifestyle in which they were not allowed to accept money for competing.
“You were limited on the number of days you could travel abroad and collect expense money, and you had to pre-apply for permission to travel,” Kidd said. “It was a different era.”
On his way to represent Canada at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the distance runner signed an amateur code.
“[This code] specifically prohibited you from benefiting from your athletic fame in any kind of financial or material way,” Kidd said. “You couldn’t endorse things, you couldn’t receive prize money and you could receive trophies valued more than $50.”
The social perception of Olympic athletes of hobbyists, not professionals, continued until 1971 when the International Olympic Committee began to abolish amateurism as a necessity for athletes competing in the games. The concept wasn’t fully eliminated until 1981. After that, Olympic athletes could finally receive compensation for time away from work while training or competing.
In Canada, Kidd was a leader in the movement to pay athletes as professionals. With the 1976 Montreal Olympics in sight, Kidd and fellow athlete Abby Hoffman organized a group of athletes to present a series of demands to the government and Canadian Olympic Committee for more financial support.
“When they refused [our demands], we threatened to go on strike at the Montreal Olympics, which caused national headlines,” Kidd said. “Very quickly, they caved in and created what is the basis for the Athlete Assistance Program.”
Funding, fans, frustrations… fixed?
Since Kidd’s time in the sport, a lot has changed. Now, track and field athletes work hard to gain sponsorships, make brand deals and maintain their social media presence for fans, all in an effort to support themselves financially.
This is where Lyness’ work comes in.
To achieve his first goal of building the sport’s fanbase in Canada, Lyness said his league will bring the individual components of track and field into more of a team format.
From April 20 to May 2, 128 athletes were drafted onto four different Canadian-themed teams: The arctics, huskies, spitfires and bears.
If successful in this first season, Lyness will have created a centralized system for track and field in Canada.
“The problem with track and field is it’s disjointed,” Lyness said. “To be honest, I don’t really watch track and field all that often because there’s so many meets going on and they’re all not really related.”
By creating a centralized system, Lyness said he can make a huge difference in Canadian coverage of the sport—not just coverage for the stars, but for the up-and-coming athletes too.
“You can create this content creation platform that allows these athletes … to now be a part of something,” Lyness said. “Even if you came seventh overall in the rankings for the long jump, your points are still going to be contributing to your team.”
Kidd said in his day, he made a point of appearing at small-scale Canadian meets as an obligation to grow the sport in Canada. With Lyness’ league, athletes can compete in highly competitive meets and draw awareness to the sport domestically, without having to sacrifice one or the other.
Lyness admitted the financial benefits of the league for athletes are still in development. Being its inaugural year, the league is operating with a $8,200 prize fund.
“It’s not exactly huge, athletes at most can get $250 directly from it,” he said. “But the added bonus is creating the platform for them to use and get those sponsorship deals with local businesses.”
Lyness said he hopes that as the league grows, so will the financial incentive it can provide.
“We’re hopefully going to be able to really help out these athletes with thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, a couple of years down the line,” Lyness said.
Until then, participation in the league is essentially free of cost for athletes. All they need to do is meet a performance standard and pay $20 for their singlet. Even then, Lyness said he will reimburse athletes when they return their singlet.
For now, Lyness is paying for the league out-of-pocket and relying on sponsors, such as New Balance, ticket sales and merchandise sales to keep the league afloat financially.
Next on the agenda, Lyness said he’s turning his attention to the CTFL Gives Back program that he’s working on with one the league’s Olympic ambassadors, three-time Olympian and 800 metre Canadian record holder Melissa Bishop (pictured below).
When he’s not running the league’s preliminary and championship meets this summer, Lyness will be working on raising funds for the program.
Through the auctioning off of an item signed by Bishop and a $250 donation from league sponsor New Balance, one elementary or high school will receive funds to spend on new athletics equipment.
“Teachers can just sign up and then we’ll enter them into a draw,” Lyness said. “Then, at a specified date, we’ll give them the money so they can go buy track and field equipment, hopefully midway through their season.”
Telford said her high school track team was not very competitive because it did not receive the same attention as other sports, such as football or basketball.
Now, the CTFL is giving Telford and students at winning schools the chance to do what they love with the resources and attention they need.
“I love track. Everyone always says find a job that you enjoy doing and do it for your life,” Telford said. “I’d rather move back in with my parents then give up track for financial reasons.”