Olympic rewards

It didn’t take long for a corporation to pursue the opportunity to bask in the afterglow of Olympic champion Cindy Klassen. Manitoba Telecom Services earlier this week announced that it has signed the 26-year-old speed skater to a “multi-year ...major sponsorship agreement.” It has been suggested that the deal is in the seven-figure range.

Klassen will represent MTS at various events and participate in upcoming marketing campaigns for the Manitoba company. In addition, MTS said in a press release it is also providing communications services during training and competitions which includes MTS Wireless, MTS TV, MTS High Speed Internet and MTS Long Distance.

It can be expected that this will not be the last major deal signed by Klassen, who became the first Canadian to win five medals at one Olympic Games, summer or winter. Until Klassen, the most medals accumulated by a Canadian athlete at a single games was three. In addition, she is the first woman from any country in Olympic history to to win five speed-skating medals at one Olympic Games.

She is also the country’s greatest Olympian — ever — winning a total of six medals. To her five medals at Turin  — one gold, two silver and three bronze — is added a bronze medal won at the Salt lake City Winter Games in 2002. The weight of medals now hanging from her neck makes Klassen a highly marketable athlete. 

Klassen’s achievement was so spectacular that International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said at the news conference before the closing ceremonies of the Turin Games that she was “definitely the woman of the games.”

Her performance was further rewarded when she was chosen as the flag-bearer during the closing ceremonies, a task she obviously relished as she waved the Maple Leaf with great enthusiasm.

“I am thrilled that MTS can play a role in assisting this awe-inspiring athlete to continue competing as she sets her sights on future events, including the next Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010,” said Pierre Blouin, CEO of MTS Allstream Inc.

In 2010, Klassen will only be 30 years old and by all accounts at the peak of her speed-skating career.

Klassen is the best thing to come to the sponsorship and endorsement marketplace in years. She is gracious in victory and articulate — simply put, she has shown while handling her success that she remains a down-to-earth and overall nice person.

“Cindy is not only a six-time Olympic medalist and a world-class athlete, but a role model,” said Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism Minister Eric Robinson.

Another Manitoba athlete who also deserves recognition as a role model is Clara Hughes (and don’t forget Shannon Rempel who won a speed-skating silver in team pursuit and Jennifer Botteril who was on the gold-medal winning women’s hockey team). The 33-year-old has won five Olympic medals, one gold and a silver for speed skating at Turin as well as a bronze for speed skating at Salt Lake City and two cycling bronzes at the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996. She is now No.2 on  the list of winning Canadian Olympians, just one medal behind Klassen.

Prior to her victory in the 5,000-metre speed-skating event at Turin, Hughes had announced she would be donating $10,000 to Right To Play, a humanitarian organization that uses sport and play as development tools for children in the Third World. What makes this gift to charity so extraordinary is that Hughes receives only $18,000 a year from the government to train and compete. 

Hughes said she was inspired by American speed skater Tony Cheek who had earlier announced he would donate his US $40,000 in Olympic bonus money to Right to Play. Cheek’s gesture falls into the category of noble, but Hughes’ gesture was even more significant since she had to empty her personal bank account to fulfill her pledge. Unlike American athletes and those of most other countries competing at Turin, Canadian athletes do not receive a bonus for winning a medal.

Canadian amateur athletes sacrifice a money-making career (exclude NHLers competing in the Olympics from this category) for what amounts to a pittance from sports associations, provincial governments and Ottawa in their pursuit of Olympic glory. The level of funding has improved in recent years — the government and corporate Own the Podium 2010 program has done a lot for winter sports — but it’s a far cry from what other countries invest in their athletes. Still, the investment has resulted in a record medal total in Turin — 24 medals and 13 fourth-place and eight fifth-place finishes. If more money was made available, just imagine the results. Less-populous Australia showed during the Summer Games what can result from solid government support — six times more money than Canada.

While corporate sponsorship is forthcoming for athletes like Klassen and Hughes, those who are just starting out on their path to the Olympics must endure years of living in near-poverty in order to pursue their dreams. These are the athletes who rely upon the sacrifices and commitments of their  families, relatives and friends to reach the podium. Olympic rower Marnie McBean summed it up best when she said Canadian athletes are funded by the “Bank of Mom and Dad.”

Manitobans should be proud that this province has produced two of Canada’s greatest Olympians who are so deserving of the status of role models. It is also appropriate that Klassen is now reaping the rewards of success. Her deal with MTS, and others that will surely follow because of her medal haul, should free her from financial worries and allow her to completely concentrate on her training regime and future competitions.