Multiple sports withdraw from 2024 Ontario Winter Games in Thunder Bay | CBC News

High costs and travel issues are forcing some of Ontario’s provincial sports organizations to pull out of the upcoming 2024 Ontario Winter Games in Thunder Bay. 

CBC News reached out to all of the provincial sport organizations that were set to attend the games and has confirmed that alpine skiing, para Nordic skiing and weightlifting will not be going ahead as planned. 

The games will be held over the weekends of Feb. 16-19 and 23-26, 2024. Local media outlet TBNewswatch first reported that some sports were withdrawing last month. 

Two weekends were chosen for the events to ensure the city has enough capacity for hotels, transportation, venues and volunteers, the city’s sport and community development supervisor told council in an update last February. 

At that time, the total cost of hosting the games was slated at $2.7 million– with most of the expenses anticipated in 2024. 

The City of Thunder Bay received a $1 million hosting grant plus an additional $500,000 hosting grant to help offset the expense of traveling to northwestern Ontario. 

But many of the provincial sports organizations can’t afford the high price and financial liabilities that came with committing to the games, said Mike Miller, president of the Ontario Weightlifting Association. 

“A lot of athletes are really upset.”

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He said it was hard to break the news to his 13-year-old son, who had been training for six months in hopes of competing at the provincial level. 

Miller said the Games committee came to the Ontario Weightlifting Association in December with an estimate of what travel, registration and accommodations would cost athletes. That estimate later rose to over $700, he said. These costs were to be paid by the athletes and would only cover a portion of the total expenses– the remainder would be paid through a travel grant provided by the province. 

While he’s disappointed with the outcome, Miller said he appreciated the provincial games committee’s efforts. 

“They were trying just as hard as us to get our athletes to the Ontario Winter Games. There must be things outside of that committee, like maybe with the city of Thunder Bay or the airlines or hotels.”

CBC News contacted multiple representatives of Thunder Bay’s Ontario Winter Games team for comment on this story.

A spokesperson denied an interview request, but promised a statement by Jan. 2nd, but that hasn’t yet been provided. 

 A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism Culture and Sport said  securing athlete travel is the city’s responsibility, but the province has  been trying to help get participants to the games by providing extra funding and working with airlines.

Attendance financially risky, say smaller sports

One of the reasons weightlifting pulled out was the requirement to pay a $1,000 fee for each athlete who signs up but doesn’t participate, said Miller. 

“We can’t go in the hole paying for people not being there,” said Miller. 

Last games, 3 athletes ended up getting sick and weren’t able to compete. “We’re a small sport. We’ve only got maybe 500 to 600 members. We can’t afford $3,000 for non-participation.”

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Alpine Ontario, the PSO for alpine skiing, para alpine and ski cross racing, said the no-show fees were also a contributing factor in why they chose to withdraw.

“We’re really disappointed we’re not there,”  said Patrick Biggs, Alpine Ontario executive director. 

It was difficult to drum up enough participants in the timeframe provided by mid-December, which is early in the ski season, he said. Alpine Ontario has a smaller membership base than PSOs representing more popular sports like hockey, said Biggs. 

“To go out to all the (ski) clubs requesting that kind of immediate confirmation and deposits at the 11th hour when the Ministry needed the names by the next week was just not within our capacity to do as an organization,” said Biggs. 

“If we had some more details sooner about the cost of the flights and our requirements then we might have been in a different place.” 

Flights to Thunder Bay reduced since bid 

“These challenges ultimately stem from a reduction in the airline capacity flying in and out of Thunder Bay since the city’s initial bid to host,” said Ministry of Tourism Culture and Sport sin an emailed statement.

WestJet stopped flying to Thunder Bay from within Ontario in Spring 2023. 

Air Canada and Porter both said they have worked with the games committee to reserve seats for athletes. Air Canada said it scheduled additional return flights between Toronto and Thunder Bay, as well as adding capacity on existing flights.

“Normally for February we would average 272 seats each way to and from Toronto and Thunder Bay, but for the busiest travel days we have more than doubled this amount. We still have seats for sale,” said Air Canada in a statement. The airline will be running up to 5 round-trip flights on peak days during the games between Toronto and Thunder Bay. 

Porter said it runs up to 4 flights a day round trip on the same route, and has provided a group rate to games participants. 

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