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Posted: October 26, 2005

Athletics: Ken Parker uses Hall of Fame platform to speak out about lack of support for Canada’s Olympians

"The government can buy chewing gum for David Dingwall but, other than for politically motivated events like the Francophonie Games, we make our athletes pay their way. It’s really sad.”

Ken Parker with members of the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team, October 2005

While receiving the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2004 was a highlight for the self-effacing Ken Parker, coach, race director and sponsor, being inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame on October 19th this year was “a big surprise and an even bigger honour.”

During the ceremony, he used the opportunity to speak out about the current state of government funding for amateur sport. We caught up with him shortly thereafter. Here’s our interview:

Q.You’ve been an outspoken critic of our government’s funding of amateur sport. In your view, what’s the main issue?

Ken: The problem is that in addition to it being too little, too late, government funding is misdirected.

Q. How so?

Ken: On one hand, three quarters of our team for the world cross-country championships - the most important running event after the Olympics - had to pay their own expenses to represent their country. On the other hand, taxpayers are fully funding not one, not two but THREE teams to the Francophonie Games- a third rate competition that’s more about politics than athletics. The government can buy chewing gum for David Dingwall (A HREF="http://www.canadafreepress.com/2005/weinreb102005.htm" target="_news">Nickels and dimes could bring the Martin government down) but, other than for politically motivated events like the Francophone Games, we make our athletes pay their way. It’s really sad.

Q. You’ve also criticized the country’s lack of sporting facilities for amateur athletes….

A. It’s a disgrace that the City of Ottawa doesn’t have a public indoor track. Why is that the our capital City, which has one of the top track and field clubs in the country (the Ottawa Lions) and one of the highest number of runners per capita can’t afford an indoor track?

Q. Is it a question of affordability?

Ken: No, it’s one of priorities. The City has decided that it would rather grant tax breaks and free rent to professional sports teams and build a $20 million single-use baseball stadium. Without this loss of tax and rent revenue and infrastructure expenditure, the City could have afforded to build a dozen or more multi-use indoor facilities over the past 5 years where residents could go and do something other than sit and watch.

Q. You’ve also been very candid about the way our government prepares our athletes for the Olympics. Your thoughts?

Ken: In Canada, the government suddenly realizes the Olympics are coming up about 6 months before the Games and they talk a lot and throw a bit of money. Usually it’s the same money which has been promised several times and usually it’s at the sports associations. Then they (the government honchos) go back to sleep.

Just look at the German Democratic Republic. I was there in 1977. We found a country with a population of 17 million that had won 40 gold medal medals in the Montreal Olympics, second only to the USSR. We watched their Youth Olympics and met a 16 year old girl who had just won the 800M in what would have been a Canadian open record. We asked her if she was working towards the 1980 Olympics. Without even taking a breath, she answered: "No, the 1984 Olympics". The Canadians all looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. Here was an athlete working towards a goal 7 years out. In Canada, our government deals in months of preparation. How can we expect our athletes to win with that kind of approach?

Q. So what would it take to improve the situation?

Ken: If the government is not going to adequately fund sport, they should follow the old axiom: "Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way."

Athletes who are supported by corporations should be able to promote their sponsors throughout the Games. This is something which they can’t do now. A company can sponsor an athlete for 4 years leading to the Olympics and then the athlete is forced to sign a contract that prohibits them from promoting their sponsor. The government could also implement tax changes which would allow a 100% deduction for individuals who make a contribution to an athlete.

Q. As CEO of Sirius Consulting, you sponsored Sharon Donnelly’s quest to compete in the Sydney Olympics. What was that experience like?

Ken: The experience with sponsorship of Sharon was wonderful. We started sponsoring her in 1977 to assist her financially with her travel expenses. Sharon needed to compete in triathlons around the world in order to qualify for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. We signed a 3 year contract that would guarantee her sponsorship right up to Sydney so she wouldn’t have to deal with or worry about yearly renewals.

In 1999, Sharon won the Pan American Games gold in Winnipeg. My wife and son and I were there to watch her win and share in her success. It was a great feeling. We paid the expenses for her mother and husband to go to Sydney for the Games and my family went again specifically to support her. By know, most people know the story of her bike crash and how she was the only one to get and get back on her bike, only to find that she could not ride it because a wheel was bent. She picked up her bike and carried it to an official station where she had the wheel replaced. Sharon’s race went from one of hoping for a high place finish to one of finishing, period. She did, as the Toronto Star later reported, “bruised, battered and bloodied”. I think we were prouder of Sharon for this gutsy performance than for winning the Pan Am Games gold. We told her right after the Sydney race that we would carry on for another four years.

We invited Sharon to our company (Sirius) Christmas party every year where she would be introduced and say a few words. In 2000 when I told our staff about Sharon’s Sydney ordeal it brought tears to people’s eyes. Sharon got up and presented the company with her Olympic racing uniform and some pieces from her bike all framed for hanging. I still have that Olympic remembrance today.

While there is no doubt that there was some PR value in our sponsorship of Sharon, the biggest reward was the fact that we helped, albeit in a small and easy way, an athlete achieve her Olympic dream.

Q. What’s the problem then?

Ken: One of the problems with corporate sponsorship is that the athletes have to sign a “contract” with the games associations (eg COA) that precludes the athlete from representing their sponsor for a fixed period before, during and after the games. This means that a company can sponsor an athlete for four years and then miss out on any exposure during the period when the athlete will likely get media coverage. It seems to me that if the associations are getting so much money from their sponsors that they can freeze out the athlete sponsors, why is some of this money not getting through to the athletes for the 4 year games period?

Q. Doesn’t the media have a roll to play in this?

Ken: Well as Steve Nash said "The world has an unhealthy preoccupation with professional sports." And to quote James A. Michener wrote about professional sports thirty years ago – “…one of the happiest relationships in American society is that between (professional) sports and the medi

A. This interface is delightfully symbiotic, since each helps the other survive.”

It’s interesting that in Europe, soccer is just as big – or bigger – than the mercenary sports in North America but they still manage to coverage athletics (track and field) as the major sport it is.

I mean, after all, athletics is the cornerstone sport of the Olympics, the biggest sports show on the planet. It is only in North America that we get coverage only once every four years.

Q. What can we do to change it?

Ken: Despite the challenge, amateur sport can do a much better job promoting their events. I know from my experiences in dealing with the media that very often event managers think that media coverage will happen automatically. It won’t. Years after I was no longer involved with some local events, I would get calls from the media who were interested in writing about an event but were not getting any help from the actual event managers.

In the early years of the National Capital Marathon we had both local papers doing pre-race supplements – which focused on the “race” and not fund-raising, CFRA covered the race live and we had national CBC TV coverage for the years when we had the Olympic and Commonwealth Games trials. However, the city only had one professional sports team then as opposed to the three it now has.

As well, organizers could make better use of the web to reach an international audience. This is a big advantage available today that was not available 10 and 15 years ago. The Toronto Waterfront Marathon is an example of a race that does an excellent job of promoting thier event. Event promoters must develop relationships with the media and not just send releases blindly off to no one in particular.

More on Ken Parker:

As a coach, race director and sponsor, Ken Parker has been a leader in the Ottawa athletic community over the past 35 years.

He was a founder of the National Capital Marathon back in 1974 and was instrumental in getting the race established and his success in generating world-wide media attention helped to make it the marquee event it is today.

Parker also put women’s running in Ottawa on the map by bringing the Avon International and Bonnie Bell races to the city, as well as founding the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing team. In addition, Parker was one of the founding coaches of the East Ottawa Lions Track Club, now one of the largest track and field organizations in the country.

He’s also been a tenacious, avid fundraiser for amateur athletes. Through his former company, Sirius Consulting, he sponsored local teams and athletes like Olympian Sharon Donnelly realize their competitive dreams. He also supported the “See You In Athens” Olympic team fundraising program through his website, RunnersWeb.com and his own philanthropy. For this, he was named volunteer of the year at the 2002 ACT Sports Awards.

Parker sold Sirius in 2003 and incorporated the Runners’ Web. In less than 2 year, the site has become one of the top ranked multi sport web sites around the world.

If you want to e-mail Ken directly, send to: Ken Parker.

© Copyright 2005 Lynne Bermel

Lynne Bermel, a former world-ranked pro Ironman competitor, is a senior marketing & PR consultant living in Ottawa. She is also a freelance writer and TV sports show host. You can reach her at: lynnebermel@rogers.com.

You can access previous columns by Lynne at: LB_Columns

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