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Canadian luge team gets cash for medals, top-10 results

Calgary— The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, Dec. 30, 2010

www.theglobeandmail.com

Alex Gough is racing for cold, hard cash in addition to medals in luge World Cups this winter.

The 23-year-old Calgarian and the rest of the Canadian luge team will receive cash bonuses for podium and top-10 results. The money is supplied by a Calgary businessman and former slider.

John Hooks, president and CEO of the oil and gas company Phoenix Technology Services Inc., is giving $5,000 for a gold medal, $3,000 for silver or bronze and $2,000 for a top-10 result. He also donated $10,000 to the team this season.

Gough became the first Canadian luger to win multiple World Cup medals in a single season with bronze medals in Igls, Austria, and another in Park City, Utah, earlier this month. She also finished seventh on her home track in Calgary, which means she's raked in $8,000 in bonus money so far this season.

“It's such a great thing to have and I'm really happy he's come back into the program with the incentives,” Gough said.

“It's really nice to have the ability to put money away and not have to live cheque to cheque. For there to be an incentive when you do well, it's a nice bonus.”

Gough lives at home with her parents, but wants to move into a house with her boyfriend next year. The extra money can help her do that.

“Between the two of us, we can do it,” she said.

Hooks, 52, is a former slider who competed in the Canadian championship in the men's open class as recently as a decade ago. He paid his own way to race in Europe in the 1980s.

He took his wife and two children to Whistler, B.C., in February to watch the Olympic luge competition. He spoke to Canadian Luge Association executive director Tim Farstad there about the team. Then there was a chance meeting with slider Sam Edney in the U.S. Customs line at the Calgary International Airport in April.

“Right away we talked about the Olympic experience,” Edney said. “He was there with his kids and his wife and he said how amazing it was. That was what got him really excited about trying to help out the team.”

Edney said they also talked about how important financial support would be looking ahead to the Sochi Games in 2014.

“I thought a lot of the support pouring into athletes before Vancouver was going to dry up and that was one of my concerns,” Edney said.

Less than two years ago, the luge team slapped “For Sale” stickers on the front of their helmets in a campaign to find a team sponsor. Fast Track Capital.com came on board and also offered $1 million if a Canadian athlete won an Olympic luge gold medal.

That was a longshot, given the domination of the sport by Germans and Italians. A Canadian has never won an Olympic medal in luge. Hooks is providing cash bonuses for results the sliders believe they can achieve.

“I wanted to make it so it was actually attainable,” Hooks explained. “It would be easy to say ‘Here, if you win I'll give you a bunch of money,' but the history is it's difficult to beat the German girls and guys.

“Even if the Canadians got into top 10, that would be something, so I actually tried to make it so they got money in the top 10.”

He intends to provide performance bonuses to the team until the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

“It's four years away and to come in at the last minute doesn't really give a big commitment,” Hooks said. “I always thought the luge athletes don't get a fair shake when it comes to sponsorship or funding.”

Financial bonuses are common in ski sports as ski, boot and helmet manufacturers give athletes they sponsor money for achieving international success, and thus promoting their product in a positive light. Sliding sports, however, don't have a large recreational base of athletes like skiing does.

It's only been at the last two Olympics — the Winter Games of 2010 and the Summer Games of 2008 — that the Canadian Olympic Committee has given money to medallists. Gold medallists earn $20,000, silver medallists $15,000 and $10,000 goes to bronze medallists.

NHL players can achieve six-figure bonuses for reaching scoring benchmarks.

Edney, who finished seventh at the Olympics, is thrilled by the chance to win a couple thousand dollars. The 26-year-old Calgarian finished just out of the money in 11th at the World Cup in Calgary in December.

“In an amateur athlete's bank account, two thousand dollars is quite a bit,” Edney said. “It gives you a bit more credibility too.

“You feel you are worth the investment and someone has that faith or belief in you that you are worth that. It makes us, as athletes, feel a little bit more special, knowing there is some money in it for doing well.”

The athletes insist the thought of money isn't a distraction in the start hut.

“It's more about having the performance first and being happy about the perks later,” Gough said.

The bonuses can help the national team retain athletes who may consider quitting and joining “the real world,” according to Farstad.

“Every year our athletes finish the season and have that thought 'Do I want to continue? Is it worth it? Do I want to start a real life?“’ he said. “When they're weighing the pros and cons, I hope this is one of those things that they consider a pro.”

The World Cup season hits the midway point next week in Koenigssee, Germany. Gough and her teammates want to take advantage of Hooks's generosity.

“Honestly, I say ‘Go for it,“’ Hooks said.