Dispute over athlete agreement has bobsled pilot without funding for four months

·5 min read

Chris Spring is a four-time Olympian who's competed for Canada in bobsled for close to a decade. But for the past four months, he's received no federal funding due to a dispute over his athlete's agreement.

"There are some provisions in the athlete 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," Spring said.

Athletes are required to sign an agreement with their national sport organization (NSO) to receive federal funding. Each sport writes its own agreement, and so they vary from sport to sport.

Spring and other athletes have said they're rendered powerless when faced with what they say is essentially a written ultimatum.

The 38-year-old last received an Athletic Assistance Program (or carding) cheque on April 11. He should have been paid about $7,000 since then.

"The athletes don't get paid (during a dispute), but everyone else (in the NSO and Sport Canada) gets to receive their cheque, and that's frustrating," Spring said.

Spring and brakeman Mike Evelyn had Canada's top finish in the two-man at the Beijing Olympics, placing seventh.

His concerns about the new athlete agreement are largely around the language. The agreement breaks down the obligations of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) and the obligations of the athlete.

"It says the BCS 'shall, throughout the term, undertake its best efforts to . . .' and then there's a whole list of things that the NSO will undertake its best efforts to comply with," Spring said. "I don't like the wording of that. What is someone's best effort? And how is that determined? It just comes down to accountability."

The section on athletes' obligations, on the other hand, reads that: "'the athlete shall throughout the term," Spring said, emphasizing 'shall.' "So, you're creating a definitive line for the athlete that they shall and they will do the following. For the NSO, they only have to 'undertake their best effort to.'"

BCS didn't immediately reply to a request for comment on Friday.

The controversy around contracts caused a stir in June when athletes in boxing and bobsled and skeleton complained about non-disparagement agreements. That prompted Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge to tell The Canadian Press that NDAs contradict the "very principle of safe sports."

BCS has since rewritten its NDA so that it specifically applies to intellectual property. Rowing Canada is among sports that had issues with their agreement. The athletes and NSO are currently each working with lawyers to redraft the agreement, and athletes have signed an interim agreement so they can receive funding while negotiating the final contract.

AthletesCAN, the association representing Canadian athletes, wrote a template for athlete agreements in 2019 in partnership with Sport Canada and a working group that included athletes, lawyers and several national sport organizations. It did not contain a non-disparagement clause.

"Athlete agreements had become this grab bag of inconsistency, athletes in different sports had to do different things. Some were good, some were bad," retired race walker Ann Peel told The Canadian Press in June. Peel was a founding member of AthletesCAN and a member of that working group.

"Athletes never got to negotiate them or even have any input. So calling them an 'agreement' was ridiculous, because they were never negotiated. More like 'Here's the rules. Sign on or you don't get your money,'" Peel added.

The group's goal was to have 100 per cent of NSOs adopt the template by 2022. The template was adopted by numerous federations including Water Polo Canada, Athletics Canada, Gymnastics Canada and Canada Snowboard.

Spring said he also disagrees with language around liability insurance and indemnification in the BCS agreement.

"Basically, what it's saying is the athlete acknowledges that there are dangers and risks inherent in the sport. '(The athlete) agrees to assume all risk associated and incidental to the athlete's participation,'" he recited from the agreement.

"It is a dangerous sport," he added. "And we undertake the sport knowing that there are risks involved. But we also would hope to assume that our NSO is doing their best efforts to reduce the risks involved, and to be liable for that. And in this agreement, it says that they're not liable for anything, even if they are at fault."

Spring also worries about the interpretation of a clause that states an athlete's living environment be conducive to high performance.

"Who's to say what is an environment that's conducive to high performance?" he asked.

It's a red flag since Spring lives remotely in a repurposed school bus, which he said is great for his mental health. He travels back and forth between the bobsled track at Whistler, B.C., and Sechelt, B.C., where he's based as a pilot for a small air taxi service.

The bobsled driver went public with his funding issues earlier in the week, posting on Twitter: "Imagine not getting paid from your employer for four months? . . . It's already difficult financially to be a Canadian athlete as we're paid below min wage. Withholding money makes it impossible."

Spring said some athletes who didn't like the agreement have given in and signed it rather than go any longer without funding.

Spring was born in Darwin, Australia, and briefly competed for that country before joining the Canadian team in 2010 and receiving his citizenship in 2013.

He had off-season knee surgery after Beijing, but said it didn't mean he was retiring, rather he was making sure he's healthy for the next four years.

"I love the sport. I love competing for Canada," he said in a phone interview. "Once my athletic days are over, I would love to give back to the future of the sport, because the sport has given me so much more than I could have ever imagined in my life.

"However, the way that things are set out or the way that things are run, not just within BCS but within Sport Canada, makes it very difficult for me to want to continue this legacy within the sport and within Canada."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press