Chris Spring is a four-time Olympian who represented Canada in bobsleigh for almost a decade. But for the past four months, he has received no federal funding due to a dispute over his athlete deal.
“There are certain provisions in the athlete’s agreement that I don’t agree with. And so I don’t want to sign an agreement that I don’t agree with just to get paid,” said Spring.
Athletes must sign an agreement with their National Sport Organization (NSO) to receive federal funding. Each sport drafts its own agreement, and so they vary from sport to sport.
The 38-year-old last received an Athletic Assistance Program (or Brevet) check on April 11. He should have received around $7,000 since then.
“Athletes are not paid [during a dispute]but all the others [in the NSO and Sport Canada] gets his check, and it’s frustrating,” Spring said.
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Spring and brakeman Mike Evelyn had Canada’s best result in the two-man at the Beijing Olympics, placing seventh.
His concerns about the new athlete deal largely relate to language. The agreement breaks down the obligations of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) and the obligations of the athlete.
“It is said that the BCS ‘shall, throughout the tenure, do its best to . . .’ and then there’s a whole list of things that the ONS will do their best to comply with,” Spring said. “I don’t like the wording of this. What is someone’s best effort? And how is that determined? It just comes down to accountability.”
The section on athlete obligations, on the other hand, reads: “‘Athlete shall throughout term,’ Spring said, emphasizing ‘shall.'” So you create a final line for the athlete they owe and they will do the following. For the ONS, they just have to ‘do their best to.’
BCS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The contract controversy caused a stir in June when boxing, bobsleigh and skeleton athletes complained about non-disparagement agreements. This prompted Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge to tell The Canadian Press that the NDAs contradict “the very principle of safe sports”.
BCS has since rewritten its NDA to apply specifically to intellectual property. Rowing Canada is among the sports that have had issues with their deal. The athletes and the NSO are each currently working with lawyers to rewrite the agreement, and the athletes have signed a tentative agreement so they can receive funding while negotiating the final contract.
“A big bag of inconsistencies”
AthletesCAN, the association representing Canadian athletes, drafted a Model Athlete Agreement in 2019 in partnership with Sport Canada and a working group comprised of athletes, lawyers and several national sport organizations. It did not contain a non-disparagement clause.
“Athlete agreements had become a catch-all of inconsistency, athletes in different sports had to do different things. Some were good, some were bad,” retired walker Ann Peel told La Presse. Canadian in June. Peel was a founding member of AthletesCAN and a member of this working group.
“Athletes were never able to negotiate them or even have a say in them. So to call them a ‘deal’ was ridiculous, because they were never negotiated. More like ‘Here are the rules.’ Sign up or you won’t get your money,” Peel added.
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The group’s goal was for 100% of NSOs to adopt the model by 2022. The model has been adopted by many federations, including Water Polo Canada, Athletics Canada, Gymnastics Canada and Canada Snowboard.
Spring said he also disagreed with language regarding liability insurance and indemnification in the BCS agreement.
“Basically what it means is that the athlete recognizes that there are dangers and risks inherent in sport.”[The athlete] agrees to assume all risks associated with and incidental to the athlete’s participation,” he recited in the agreement.
“It’s a dangerous sport,” he added. “And we go into the sport knowing that there are risks involved. But we also hope to assume that our NSO is doing its best to reduce the risks involved and to be accountable for them. And in that agreement it says that they are not responsible for anything, even if they are at fault.”
Spring is also concerned about the interpretation of a clause that states that an athlete’s living environment is conducive to high performance.
It’s a red flag since Spring is living remotely in a refurbished school bus, which he says is great for his mental health. He commutes between the bobsleigh run in Whistler, BC, and Sechelt, BC, where he works as a pilot for a small air taxi service.
The bobsleigh pilot went public with his funding issues earlier in the week, posting on Twitter: “Imagine not being paid by your employer for four months? . . . It’s hard enough financially to be a Canadian athlete because we are paid below minimum wage. Withholding money makes this impossible.
Spring said some athletes who didn’t like the deal caved in and signed it rather than continue without funding.
Spring was born in Darwin, Australia, and briefly competed for that country before joining Team Canada in 2010 and receiving his citizenship in 2013.
He underwent off-season knee surgery after Beijing but said that did not mean he was retiring, but rather ensuring he was healthy for the next four years.
“I love the sport. I love competing for Canada,” he said in a phone interview. “Once my sporting days are over, I would like to give back to the future of sport, because sport has given me so much more than I could have imagined in my life.
“However, the way things are defined or the way things are managed, not just within BCS but within Sport Canada, makes it very difficult for me to want to continue that legacy in the sport and in Canada.”