These are confusing and challenging days for board members, executives, coaches and athletes who have been working to get Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton back on track.
The national sport body has been in an almost constant state of change since a group of about 80 present and former athletes went public in March 2022 with a list of the organization’s perceived failures on issues of governance, transparency, culture and safety.
New president Tara McNeil, who took the reins in November 2022, said BCS personnel has since been acting on guidance from its major funding partners, Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee, and working collaboratively with them to institute the organizational changes deemed mandatory.
So, when those partners suspended all NextGen funding for the 2023-24 season, and cut targeted excellence funding for BCS by 43 per cent for 2023-24, the news landed with a massive thud on the organization’s bottom line. The skeleton program actually received a 25 per cent increase over last season, to $375,000 from $300,000, while bobsleigh took a 58 per cent hit, from $1.415 million to $600,000.
BCS athletes recently told the funding partners during a meeting that the overall cut felt like punishment for speaking out.
“It does feel that way,” McNeil said Wednesday. “The athletes felt that way. The partners said that’s not how we want you to take it. We want the organization to change. And they were convinced that our NextGen status and funding will come back. They did suspend our core sport status for a period of time until we could do all the changes and I think we are almost done all of them, so I have no doubt we will be able to get all of that back.
“When they delivered the money news we didn’t expect it to be quite as low on the bobsleigh side, but they’ve given us an opportunity to apply for a whole bunch of other funding, which we’ve done. The partners are helping us be better. They are helping us restructure. They are actively involved in supporting us.
“We’re not 100 per cent sure and understanding of (the cut) but we know our relationships have improved considerably, so it is a bit of a conundrum.”
Own The Podium CEO Anne Merklinger said the targeted excellence funding reduction for BCS was “largely related to a reduced number of athletes on the podium pathway, particularly in men’s bobsleigh.”
Indeed, the pool is shallow, and got shallower Thursday when long-time pilot Chris Spring announced his retirement from competition. The 39-year-old was on the injured reserve list, along with four other athletes. The senior bobsleigh team for this World Cup season consists of just two women and three men, while the development team has a roster of eight women and 11 men.
McNeil said the skeleton funding increase reflects the work already done by BCS to improve that program, including the naming of a three-person coaching squad. The funding cut for the bobsleigh program is indicative of the fact there is obviously more work to be done on that side.
“They want to redevelop it,” McNeil said. “There is limited depth, particularly on the men’s side, so we need to do more recruitment and development there.”
More broadly, BCS was instructed by the funding partners to do major work on its governance structure and bylaws, improve the daily training environment for athletes and coaches, change the culture and improve safety for everyone in the organization.
With support from the funding partners, BCS brought on interim CEO Patrick Jarvis to provide leadership through that restructuring, and McNeil said great strides have been made and are still ongoing. She also said BCS is close to hiring an executive director, an addition that was mandated by the funding partners.
“So (the funding reduction) looks bad, but it isn’t, if that makes sense,” she said. “Honestly, I am struggling to explain it, because I also know what we’ve done in the background and how much the partners have commended us for the work we have done.
“We had to make significant changes in the organization to improve its governance, improve the daily training environment, improve safety, which we have been working incredibly hard to do. So (the funding cut) seems to be a short-term thing and it is confusing.”
McNeil said BCS will be launching a series of fund-raising initiatives aimed at replacing at least some of the funding that has been suspended for this season.