Changes to athlete's retirement plans a small step to helping with finances

TORONTO – The medals, the tears and the pride may be what most Canadians remember from the Olympics, but when the glory fades, athletes need to plan for retirement, just like everyone else.

A recent policy change by Ottawa will make it easier for them to invest in RRSPs but, given the meagre earnings of many amateur athletes and their focus on planning for the short term, it’s a challenge to financially prepare athletes for the future.

“The funding is a huge problem for national team athletes, so any move to increase money or money to help athletes is am important one,” said Thomas Hall, an Olympic medallist in sprint canoe who retired from paddling in 2012.

“It is nice that it opens room in the RRSP, but … I know for a fact that, for the 10-plus years I was on the national team, the best year I ever had was when I won an Olympic medal … and I still finished with plenty of debt. There just aren’t that many athletes making that much money,” said Hall, who also works with Canoe Kayak Canada and AthletesCAN, two organizations that support athletes.

Under Canadian tax rules, athletes competing for Canada are able to take income from endorsements, prize money or speaking engagements and place it in an amateur athlete trust. It’s a tax-free shelter until they take it out – and allows them to grow those funds on a tax-free basis while they compete.

But since RRSP contributions are based on earned income, none of that money could be used toward a contribution calculation, which means athletes had less RRSP room.

In the federal budget tabled Feb. 11, Ottawa changed the rules so that any income put into an amateur athlete trust can now qualify as earned income and help determine the athlete’s RRSP contribution limit.

Jamie Golombek, a tax expert with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said it was a positive move by the government in assisting athletes to reach solid financial footing.

“This is just a policy change to not penalize these individuals who have contributed much to the Canadian athlete profile around the world (but) typically don’t earn large amounts of money,” Golombek said.

“It never really made sense why you had athletes earning this income, setting it aside into a government-sanctioned amateur athletic trust, and yet they were not able to later on put that money into an RRSP. This levels the playing field between athletes and other Canadians who earn money and are able to then use that earned income to contribute to an RSP.”

Peter Donnelly, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies, said such changes are positive, but they don’t go far enough to support struggling athletes.

“Most athletes develop a great deal of indebtedness,” said Donnelly. “They don’t get paid anything like a professional athlete would get paid for the sponsorships.”

Most athletes will live on a federal government stipend of $18,000 a year, says Hall, noting that figure hasn’t increased since 2004. There is also a provincial top-up, which varies from province-to-province. Quebec pays the highest amount, about an additional $10,000.

That makes it hard for athletes to get by, let alone save. A 2009 Status of Athletes report by the federal government, said Hall, showed the majority of athletes were making $10,000 a year less than they were spending in sport-related expenses.

Funding issues aside, there is value in any initiative that puts athletes under the rules similar to those who work traditional jobs, and which helps them think about the future, he said.

“We live in a bubble and we spend often times a decade or two in a bubble where you’re solely focused on winning, and any thought of retirement can almost be a weakness,” said Hall.

“You don’t think about when you’re done, you think about what you have to do to be the best and to get to the top of that podium. Thinking about retirement is just not usually in the cards for a lot of people.”

While Golombek agrees that is often the case, he says getting financial advice is just as important for athletes.

“If this even alerts one or two athletes, then I think this would be a very positive development.”