Sochi 2014: Crowdfunding fuels Olympic dreams

Sport-focused sites help athletes with talent and expensive dreams but slim budgets.

By:        Staff Reporter,              Published on Fri Jan 31 2014  
Canadian skier Larissa Yurkiw during a training session in Val d'Isere, France. She has used crowdfunding platform to help finance her training for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Canadian skier Larissa Yurkiw during a training session in Val d’Isere, France. She has used crowdfunding platform to help finance her training for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Alpine skier Larissa Yurkiw knows the cost of pursuing an Olympic dream. Two months before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, she suffered a crash that sidelined her for those games and forced her to spend two more years rehabbing.

But after paying the physical and emotional toll of overcoming serious injury, the 25-year-old athlete learned that the financial cost of becoming an Olympian is even steeper. Earning a spot in Sochi meant paying $20,000 in national team fees, and Yurkiw didn’t have quick access to that much cash.

Instead, she had a network of willing supporters, a compelling back-story and a web platform that allowed her to monetize both. Using the Canadian sport-focused fundraising site, Yurkiw surpassed her goal, raising $22,476 on contributions from more than 2,300 fans.

She also became one of a growing number of athletes competing in Sochi who crowdfunded their way to the games.

Eight Canadian Olympians used to fund their campaigns, while six more covered costs with help from Montreal-based Make a Champ. And when the Jamaican bobsled team learned earlier this month they had qualified for a spot in Sochi, several crowdfunding campaigns instantly materialized, raising more than $180,000 toward their expenses.

As crowdfunding has grown more common, sport-specific platforms have emerged to help fill a financial gap for aspiring Olympic athletes who are serious enough to incur hefty training expenses but often lack the profile and sponsorship income to defray them.

“When athletes are moving away from the Bank of Mom and Dad and into the real world, that’s when they need the most support,” says co-founder Julia Rivard. “We want to connect Canadian fans to really, really fantastic high-performance athletes with a dream.”

Rivard, a former Olympic kayaker, and business partner Leah Skelly, a former gymnast, run tech development firm Norex Web Strategy, where they give employees a day each week to create their own initiatives. Shortly after the London Olympics, an employee proposed a sports-based crowdfunding site, and by October 2012, the not-for-profit was online.

Make a Champ was also co-founded by an athlete. Two years ago, Canadian judo competitor David Ancor returned to Montreal from the World Junior Championships with a torn knee ligament and a $4,000 invoice from Judo Canada for the trip to the competition. A brainstorming session aimed at paying the bill led to the creation of the crowdfunding site, which launched in September 2012.

“We realized a lot of athletes were going through the same issue: trying to build a website (to) get them money,” Ancor says. “We needed to fix the problem not just for myself, but for everybody else.”

Depending on the platform, athletes keep between 85 and 90 per cent of the cash raised through crowdfunding sites in general.

At the end of their campaigns, athletes pay a five per cent fee to a payment processing company, 10 per cent to and keep the remainder. Fees for athletes raising funds through Make a Champ total 12.5 per cent of the campaign goal, Ancor says.

Not every athlete who applies is accepted, and not every campaign reaches its goal in the allotted time. The 35 campaigns listed on’s web site come from among 400 athletes and teams who have contacted the company. Rivard says individual athletes tend to raise funds more successfully than teams, because the campaigns feel more personal.

People who support an athlete’s campaign receive rewards from the athlete that correspond with the size of their donation. The 16 fans who donated $250 received a toque Yurkiw crocheted herself, while the supporters who pledged $1,000 got mentorship sessions with the skier.

“If you can really structure a fantastic give-back, no-one will get tired of your campaign,” Rivard says.

The people behind both companies say the Sochi games will prompt a rapid expansion their programs, and of sports-based crowdfunding overall.

After Sochi, Rivard plans to bring to the U.S., and is already working with partners stateside to connect with U.S. Olympians in the two-year buildup to the 2016 summer games in Rio. Meanwhile, Make a Champ has branched out to non-Olympic sports.

Last week, Mississauga-based mixed martial arts fighter Albert Cheng launched his first crowdfunding campaign, hoping to raise the $2,000 he needs to prepare for an upcoming competition in Macau.

“It looks like it can be an amazing tool for amateur athletes and pro athletes who are struggling with some money issue,” says Cheng, a graduate of Queen’s University. “It’s a good way to promote yourself and build your brand at the same time.”

Along with money and notoriety, Ancor says crowdfunding campaigns provide athletes with another essential ingredient for success.


“It’s the emotional and moral support you get from 100 people taking money from their pocket and giving it to you,” he says. “You’re so pumped and motivated to see that other people want you to succeed.”

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