Volleyball Canada will pay thousands of dollars for the flights of beach volleyball players to Europe, rather than see the players' chances of qualifying for the London Olympic Games vanish under a mass of bureaucratic red tape.
"If it's an issue for them, we'll buy their air tickets for the tournaments (in Prague, Moscow and Rome)," said Ed Drakich, Volleyball Canada's high performance director for beach volleyball. "We don't want players to miss out on the Olympics because they didn't have a ticket to the qualifying events. We'll make sure the athletes get their flights. ... The bottom line is, we're alive and can get to the Games."
Carding money from Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Plan – which had been tentatively approved for 20 players – has been held back for six months by a Volleyball Canada appeal concerning a player who had been cut from the men's team.
With the Olympic clock counting down, some of Canada's top beach volleyball players complained they had hit the limit of their personal credit cards and couldn't afford plane tickets to the crucial Europe tournaments in which they could win a spot on the Olympic court.
The chances of the Toronto twosome of Heather Bansley and Liz Maloney and the men's team of Martin Reader of Comox, B.C., and Josh Binstock of Toronto – potential Olympians – were affected by the lack of funds.
"The carding [money]is on hold because of the appeal process," said Drakich, adding that the appeal process has dragged in an unusually long time. "It's extremely unusual that it [the appeal]takes so long but the stars lined up that way. We'd like to resolve the process."
Seven-year veteran Rich VanHuizen is making an appeal after not being picked for the national squad this year.
"It is the responsibility of Volleyball Canada to determine the eligibility of their athletes for carding and to provide this information to Sport Canada," explained Len Westerberg, Sport Canada media relations adviser.
"The appeal process that is under way is internal to Volleyball Canada, and Sport Canada is unable to complete the carding process until Volleyball Canada completes its appeal process."
"The carding money they're not receiving is money they need. In the last couple of days, the decision was made. On a need basis, we'll make sure we have the flights," Drakich said.
The women, ranked 19th in the world, can qualify directly for the London Olympics by improving their ranking to top-16. Bansley and Maloney recently have had seventh- and ninth-place finishes in world tournaments.
They've used their dwindling dollars sparingly – Bansley is tapped out and Maloney is working on a line of credit. They got a coach to the Shanghai tour stop by using up points on a customer loyalty card, Bansley said.
"People might think of it as a 'fringe' sport, but we do it because we have a passion for it and passion for the lifestyle," says Mark Heese, an Olympic bronze medalist and 10-time national champion. He is in Toronto with volleyball gear sponsor Overkill for the world tour (at Ricoh Centre May 18-20) and the national volleyball championship.
The game is bigger than when he won his Olympic bronze with John Childs in 1996. Now 42, and a firth place Olympic finisher at Sydney and Athens, he played until his mid-30s on a teacher's salary. It's tough to do now, he said.
With the growth of the sport has come expensive responsibilities.
"We have a lot more facilities and coaching and a national training centre," he said. Athletes are expected to pay their way to most professional events. "If they want to go, it's up to them," he said. "The appetite from sponsors is not there yet."
Bansley and Maloney have Grand Slam events remaining in Moscow (June 6 to 12) and Rome (June 12 to 17) The men have three Olympic qualifying events left – the Prague Open, May 22 to 27; plus the Moscow and Rome tournaments. The men, ranked 29th in the world tour, are likely to seek a different route to the 24-team Olympic field from the women. They can advance as a regional (NORCECA) representative. They need to win the Continental Cup in Mazatlan, Mexico in late June. Reader won last year's Continental Cup with a different partner.
"For both the men and the women, an Olympic spot is a real possibility," Reader said in an interview.
In a throwback to days of underfunded amateur sport Jane Roos, founder of the independent athlete fund raising body Canadian Athletes Now, started an emergency appeal for $60,000 – by Wednesday afternoon the fund received almost $20,000.
"It's tough when you see the top teams in the world show up with three or four support staff. Ninety per cent of the time, we go without a coach or physiotherapist or a psychologist," Bansley said.
"Volleyball Canada will be paying for our travel to the Continental Cup, World Cup [if we come second or third at the Continental cup] Austrian Grand Slam [preparation tournament]and the Olympic Games," Reader said in a message. However "we must still compete in the final three tournaments of our qualification period on our own dime."
Reader said he and Binstock financed their Olympic dream themselves this season and previously fundraised $20,000 – half of which was a donation from Magna International CEO Don Walker – "but we have emptied that pot. We were proactive in our fundraising efforts as we anticipated these financial stresses but we were only able to do so much by ourselves."
Roos said in her appeal that London is "a dream that has been a journey for more than eight years for most of these athletes."