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The cost of raising an Olympic athlete can have a low return-on-investment

Cheryl Simundson, mother of Olympic double gold medalist Kaillie Humphries, holds the flag her daughter carried after winning gold at the 2014 Sochi Games at her home near Priddis, Alta., Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. Simundson knew she would support her kids in any endeavour they chose, and for Humphries that would now mean a long journey of emotional, and financial help.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Cheryl Simundson can still vividly recall the time her daughter, two-time Olympic bobsled champion Kaillie Humphries, stood on a chair during a family dinner more than 20 years ago and announced her plans to win gold for Canada.

"OK," Simundson said she told the seven-year-old at the time, before telling her to sit down and finish dinner.

The Calgary mom knew she would support her kids in any endeavour they chose, and for Humphries that would now mean a long journey of emotional – and financial – help.

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"Raising an Olympian," said Simundson, "(there) never is an end to it."

With another Olympic Games over, many young Canadians may now feel the drive to embrace a sport and work their way onto the podium.

But raising a star athlete isn't cheap and the return on investment for most families will rarely, if ever, add up to the millions of dollars someone like Michael Phelps garners from endorsement deals.

Annual costs for a high-performance athlete range from $10,000 to $30,000, said Katie Misener, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo's recreation and leisure studies department.

"Over their career, it's easily a six-figure investment, with no guarantee of a return," she said in an email.

The majority of the financial burden often comes down to the equipment required for a child's choice of sport, said Marvin G. Ryder, an assistant professor at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business.

"Pray to God that they ask you to be a long-distance runner," he said.

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The most expensive summer sports include sailing and equestrian events, he said, where the costs of owning, moving and maintaining a boat or horse can add up to roughly $500,000 a year.

Archery and shooting also rank highly, as they require bows and guns, as well as arrows and ammunition, he added.

Winter sports can also include steep costs. Consider hockey, where the costs of skates, a helmet and pads can quickly add up.

Simundson recalls paying $100,000 for a better bobsled for Humphries. Her daughter has since paid that back.

Even sports that would require little equipment can surprise parents at more competitive levels, said Chris Chard, an associate professor at Brock University's sport management department.

Chard estimates a competitive swimmer can set a family back roughly $15,000 annually, between club fees, swimsuits that costs hundreds of dollars and only last a few races, and other expenses like travel and nutrition.

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Once kids compete internationally, there's often some funding available to help offset such costs, noted Ryder, but the journey there is often self-funded.

And the odds of a payoff, in terms of making the Olympics and standing atop the podium, are slim. The kids who advance to the highest level of a sport are a fraction of one per cent of those who enter it, both Ryder and Chard said.

Of those who actually make it and win, few can bank on a sizable pay out.

"There just isn't a big, big cheque waiting for you in most cases," said Ryder.

In fact, government and other types of funding are often barely enough to support the athlete and parents have to plan to supplement that, he added.

Simundson said athletes receive little funding to support them in the four years between Olympic showings, pointing out that their monthly stipends make it difficult to pay for housing, utilities, gas and food.

"So they're having to go out and get other jobs," she said.

The likelihood of a college scholarship payout isn't great either, Chard noted.

Despite the myriad number of costs and challenges, he maintains there's still reason for parents to help their children pursue their Olympic dreams.

Young athletes learn essential life skills, such as time management and team building, not to mention the quality family time spent together, he said.

"On a lot of levels, it's worth the cost because it's not just about the ROI from a bottom-line perspective."

The most important thing, added Simundson, is that the kids enjoy the sport.

"This has to be their dream," she said.

"You just support them and build them up and make sure that they're going to do OK."

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