By Mark Colley
The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees are cutting funding for their track and field team due to COVID-induced budget constraints, angering members of the team, who say the decision is unfair and unjustified.
The team, which is operated through a partnership with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, had been considered a tier one team with access to uOttawa’s high performance centre, physiotherapy and mental health resources. It is being moved to tier two and will lose those services.
Director of varsity athletics Sue Hylland said in a statement that the university would provide funding for the next competitive season and is “actively looking for ways to sustain funding beyond the next season.”
The team was informed of the decision in a July 7 meeting with Hylland and Roger Archambault, assistant director of high performance.
“The magnitude of the budget situation we’re facing is far greater than this alone,” Archambault said in a recording of the meeting, which was obtained by Sports Pages. “We’ve had to make significant adjustments in multiple areas … [COVID-19] brought us to a situation where we have a significant budget deficit.”
The funding cuts and loss of services will result in a less competitive team, indicated Doyin Ogunremi, a third-year health sciences student who competes as a sprinter for the Gee-Gees. It will also create a pay-to-play system.
“To put the burden of paying for track and field on the athlete, a lot of people will not be able to support that and that means a lot of people will not be able to run,” Ogunremi said. “[Only] the richest among our teammates will be able to run … Usually you put the best players out on the field, not the richest.”
Sean Burges, a Lions coach who works with the uOttawa team, estimates each athlete will have to pay $2,000 out of pocket to compete per season.
Ogunremi also expressed concern about the longevity of the program. Some athletes on the team have considered transferring to other schools, although most are staying and advocating for the team’s status, Ogunremi said.
“[Because of the cuts], it’s going to be almost impossible to recruit top-level athletes into our program,” Ogunremi said. “Our in-flow of athletes will basically run dry.”
In a statement, Hylland said the decision to reclassify the track and field team from tier one to tier two was made partly due to the fact it already operates through an external club and the lack of on-campus facilities for the team.
“We are working to make this as seamless a transition as possible for our athletes,” Hylland said.
Ogunremi said justifying the reclassification based on how the team was already functioning is problematic. This season, when the Louis-Riel Dome was closed to outside groups, some members of the team trained at Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne, which Ogunremi said has an extremely hard surface that caused injuries, especially for jumpers.
In another instance, during the height of its championship competition, the team was booked for 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. at uOttawa’s Lees Dome. At 9 a.m., the team was kicked out of the dome for another team that was in their offseason.
“If the university is calling that tier one, then my teammates and I are not extremely interested in seeing what tier two looks like,” Ogunremi said. “For them now to come and say, well, you’re already training at this level, so that’s alright, we’ll just move you down, is a little bit insulting.”
Under the previous structure, the university covered the cost of team travel, hotel stays and meet entry fees. Student-athletes paid for food at meets.
While all university funding for regular season meets will be cut, administrators mentioned the possibility of providing funds for provincial and national championships, though Ogunremi said it will be much more difficult to make it to the championships in the first place.
“The university has to support us from the beginning to the end,” Ogunremi said. “If it’s only at the end, there’s really no way for us to get to that end.”
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