HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-at-Home Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
In the early days of the war against COVID-19, Agnes Laing got the call. She was asked to appear before the federal government’s standing committee on finance via Zoom to reveal how the pandemic was affecting gymnastics clubs.
This was a serious matter and her presentation was direct and meaningful to the 13 multi-party, committee members on April 24. It’s hard to know if it led to direct action, but it likely played an important role in a Canada emergency rent assistance program.
“I was asking for a form of subsidy for rent or on taxes,” said Laing, who spoke on behalf of the 200 gymnastics clubs in Ontario and for almost 400 clubs in Canada. “Most of us have huge facilities and (six-figure) annual rent.”
Laing, who co-founded the Corona School of Gymnastics in Nepean in 1972 and remains its owner and executive director, was recently honoured by Gymnastics Ontario with a Recognition Award for lobbying the federal government on a critical issue.
She was one of 15 witnesses to appear before the finance committee to help the government form its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee also heard from three Western Canada mayors and the Northwest Territories government.
Laing caught the committee’s attention right from the start. “Who would have predicted that the name of our school (Corona) would one day be synonymous with such a devastating global pandemic (novel coronavirus)?”
“I am grateful that our leaders in Canada have acted with such great care, efficiency and concern for all Canadians,” Laing told the committee. “I understand and embrace the government’s decision to shut down all non-essential services.”
That’s a tough bullet to bite for gymnastics clubs. For Corona, and probably other provincial clubs, her large venue is experiencing its third pandemic-sparked closure since March. And when it has been open, only a small number of gymnasts are welcome.
Corona regularly has 1,200 gymnasts a week in its wide variety of programs. But without gymnasts, revenues have fallen sharply and stress has increased, while facing monthly rent and bills.
“This will affect the health of our children as well as the thousands of people employed in our sport. To give you an idea of the numbers involved just in Ontario, there are 200 clubs, 118,000 gymnasts and 4,600 coaches and administrators,” she said.
If you were to look at it from a national perspective, Laing added gymnastics is the seventh-largest sport.
In outlining gymnastics’ dilemma, Laing pointed out social distancing is impossible because the coaches must be close to the athlete for safety reasons. And the various gymnastics apparatus are constantly being touched, which could lead to virus transmission.
“Gymnastics schools require indoor facilities of 12,000 to 30,000 square feet, which are usually rented, resulting in huge overheads. The total paid in rent, taxes and payroll by gymnastics schools just in Ontario alone is $62.8 million annually,” she added.
“In order for our schools to survive, they will need extended support for rent from the government. The average rent in Ontario ranges from $150,000 to $250,000 a year.
“Since there will be no revenue for what is expected to be an extended period of time,” Laing said in late April, “we will require assistance to return to our space and be able to reopen, when it is safe to do so for our children.”
If a gymnastics club is forced out of its location by the landlord, it would be near impossible to store its equipment, worth about half a million dollars. Trying to find another sport-specific location would be “financially impossible,” according to Laing.
Laing finished her presentation by adding that 87 per cent of the people involved in gymnastics are female, 78 per cent of the total employees are female and 60 per cent of the employees are students.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for over 47 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.