Members of an association representing more than 1,800 men and women on Canada’s senior national teams will directly benefit from Bell Canada’s commitment to provide some $5 million annually in telecommunications hardware, Internet

access and airtime.

Officially kicking off next month, the enhanced Bell Athletes Connect program will see Bell and Athletes CAN formalize a partnership started in 1997. The new seven-year deal will not only give Canadian athletes the technology they need to stay in touch with coaches, family, friends and team members, but also provide them with the peace of mind to focus on training.

Eligible athletes will receive a limited edition Samsung a660 mobile phone (valued at approximately $450); accessories for their mobile phone; 800 minutes of airtime per month for a year (valued at $169 per month); and high-speed Internet access, where available, for a year (valued at $50 per month).

“”Before the enhanced program, there were no terms on the deal,”” said Thomas Jones, CEO, Athletes CAN, based in Ottawa. “”It was really just an arrangement that we had with Bell to provide phones to athletes. The program itself has been upgraded from a program that provided each national team athlete in our database with a cell phone program with about 250 minutes of free airtime to a program that provides 800 minutes per athlete. And the coverage area is North America rather than just Canada, as it was under the previous program.””

Daniel Igali, who won a gold medal in wrestling at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, commented on the advantages the new program has over the old one.

“”I remember that most of us (athletes) used to pay quite a bit over what we were getting in terms of free minutes, because 250 minutes is only about four hours or so,”” said Igali, who is currently training at Burnaby, B.C.’s Simon Fraser University in preparation for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. “”But now that it’s increased, it enhances our chances of being able to stay on the phone longer without having to run off because we’re scared that our minutes are going to be exhausted very quickly.””

On the national team for 10 years, Cassie Campbell expressed her take on the revamped Bell Athletes Connect program.

“”This is a good program that actually is putting money directly into the athletes’ pockets rather than directly into administration costs,”” said Cassie, who captained the Canadian women’s hockey team that won the gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. “”You want to talk to your parents for more than two minutes and to have a decent conversation.””

Bell said the program’s evolution comes on the heels of athletes requesting more airtime and greater coverage area. As a major player in the telecommunications industry, Bell realized that it could better meet the needs of nomadic athletes — including those training for Olympic, Paralympic, Aboriginal, Pan American and Commonwealth Games —- by providing them with the tools they need to stay in touch, according to company spokesperson Gina Gottenberg.

“”This is probably the most significant evolution to the program that we’ve made,”” said Gottenberg, adding that retiring athletes will now remain part of the program for a year following retirement. “”We continually look to see if we’re meeting the athletes’ needs. This is something we discussed with them, and the athletes said, ‘We’d love to be able to make calls home when we’re travelling down to the States or we’re competing down in the States.’””

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