Even the Empire State Games — a popular competition for the best high school student athletes and master athletes from around the state — has not been spared the budget ax.
The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced on Friday that state funding has been cut for the games and as a result, each athlete who participates will have to pay a fee of $285 for the Summer Games and $100 for Winter Games.
Since the games began in 1978 there’s never been a participation fee and some athletes say the new fee will hurt the competition and keep many athletes away because they simply can’t afford it.
“Obviously I think less people will want to do it because it will cost more,” said Frank Campagnano, 19, of Schenectady, a member of the championship soccer team in the 2007 Summer Games.
“I would have to consider whether I would be able to do it again at this cost,” said Campagnano, who played midfield and forward for Guilderland High School and is now a player at Hamilton College.
When he played on the Adirondack team in the Empire State Games, his only cost was his shorts, he said on Friday.
While most athletes will have to pay to compete, there will be no fee for those who participate in the Games for the Physically Challenged, which drew about 1,400 athletes in 2008.
Lynn Chabot has seen the steady paring of state funding for the Empire State Games, first as an athlete and now as the director of the Adirondack Region. But she said this year’s cut has left organizers scrambling for corporate sponsors and searching for ways to keep the games from being decimated by the abrupt loss of funding .
“There is just nothing included in the budget this year whatsoever,” she said Friday. “I’m not sure if the legislators really understand what the impact is going to be.”
As of now, all of the open division team sports will be merged with the master’s division, creating a hybrid adult division where participants will be required to cover all their own expenses. All non-scholastic or 18-and-over team sports will be removed from the competition, effectively eliminating a division in the game that drew top-ranked young adults, regardless of their college affiliation.
The budget cuts could also mean that even high school athletes will have to pay to compete. Those students attending the games this year may have to pay a $300 fee before joining the games.
“It’s going to be really difficult. It’s really going to put a huge burden on people. It’s a shame to see the end of the games as we know it,” Chabot said.
There are other casualties of the cuts: The annual Senior Games, and all Masters and Open competitions in the Winter and Summer Games will be suspended for the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Certain events and activities for high school athletes and the physically challenged will also be suspended or scaled back.
Officials with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said the new fees are a result of 10 percent agency spending reduction ordered as state revenues decrease.
Joan Henry, 68, of Rexford, who has competed for several years in the Empire State Games open division in both marathon canoeing and cross-country skiing, was disappointed on Friday when she learned the open competition would be suspended for the 2009-10 year.
“It’s a shame because there are people like us who still want to go out and compete,” said Henry, who is currently training for a cross-country ski race in Europe.
Henry said she probably wouldn’t be willing to pay $285 for the Summer Games — it’s just too much money, she said.
“It’s very disappointing. It sounds like it’s getting butchered,” said Susan McConnell, 60, of Clifton Park, who competes in the open division in shooting in air pistol and women’s sport pistol. She won two team gold medals in July 2008 and previously won individual gold in both events.
“There may be a few who can afford to pay it. The kids I know who were shooters, they can’t afford it. I think it will fall flat.”
It’s sad for the kids, said McConnell, who said it’s a great training experience for athletes and that some, including Jason Turner, who competed in shooting in the Empire State Games, went on to win in the Olympic Games.
McConnell said she needs to know more about what the $285 covers before she decides if she’ll compete.
The Gov. Hugh L. Carey Empire State Games started in 1978 and has an annual $3 million budget, which included $2.7 million in state funding, but all funding will be cut for 2009-10.
“In a time of unprecedented fiscal crisis, the unfortunate reality is that reductions have to be made across every area of government,” Carol Ash, commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said in a statement. “We have sought to strike an appropriate balance that allows the Games to continue for high school and physically challenged athletes, while also helping the state address its record $15.4 billion deficit.”
Ash said the agency will seek private sponsorships, which could make it possible to reinstate the suspended competitions and re-examine the new fees.
It remains to be seen how the new fees will impact the games and the number of athletes who participate. In the 2008 Summer Games, 6,000 participated, while the 2008 Winter Games had 1,400 athletes.
“It’s hard to tell if there will be a decrease. We are in uncharted territories,” said Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee.
Athletes who cannot afford the cost may have to turn to traditional fundraising mechanisms to obtain the money, she said. The state will not be offering any financial assistance for them to participate.
The February 2009 Winter Games will be held as planned in Lake Placid with no fee, but three sporting events will be suspended, including bobsled, luge and skeleton.
In July 2009, the Summer Games will be held in the Mid-Hudson region and a $285 fee for scholastic-level athletes will be charged. It will cover the cost of room, board and local transportation during the four-day event. Scholastic boxing, fencing and shooting will be suspended for the 2009 summer games.
The Games for the Physically Challenged — scheduled for May 2009 in Long Island and October 2009 in Brockport for athletes 5-21 years old — will have streamlined activities and events.
For the Winter Games scheduled for February 2010 at Lake Placid, athletes will continue to pay for their own meals and lodging, as they have traditionally done, and there will be a participation fee of $100. The opening ceremonies will also be scaled back.
The 2010 Summer Games will be held in Buffalo and the $285 fee for each athlete will be charged.
State officials said the cut in funding for Empire State Games is one of several steps State Parks is taking in response to the state’s fiscal crisis. Other include reducing operations at state parks and historic sites, eliminating the 2009 state park police academy, instituting a hard hiring freeze and eliminating state support for the Heritage Areas program.