Wednesday, 15 August 2012

amateur athlete funding...the real dope: #WeDemandChange

Elana Meyers is a bobsled athlete from the United States.  I was lucky enough to coach her for a couple of years, leading up to her bronze medal performance at the Vancouver-Whistler Winter Olympic Games in 2010.  After a few years as one of the world’s best push athletes, Elana has now been driving for the last two seasons, culminating in a World Championship bronze medal this past February in Lake Placid, New York.  

The following is a guest post from Elana, and follows up on yesterday’s post on #WeDemandChange.  The public perception of the financial details of amateur sport is often misguided.  Here, Elana sheds some light on the reality:

amateur athlete funding...the real dope: #WeDemandChange - a guest-post by Elana Meyers

With the London 2012 Olympics just finishing, throughout the course of these Games there has been much discussion about the finances of Olympic athletes and their families.  

See here, and here, for more details.

So what can you make out of all of this?  Well, here's my take:  

The finances of Olympic athletes in the US is a very complex issue.  On one end you have superstars like LeBron James, Michael Phelps, and now Gabby Douglas, just to name a few, making millions; but these are very, very few of the Olympic athletes who represent the U.S.  Think about it, out of the 529 2012 US Olympians, how many can you name?  Probably not a lot, but each of these athletes have spent great amounts of money to reach their goals, have racked up huge credit cards bills, their families have taken out second mortgages or sacrificed in other ways,  in order to reach their Olympic dream.  And so many others have done the exact same thing, only to get to Olympic Trials and not make the US Olympic team.  Not only will the majority of US Olympians never make back from their sports what they spend, but for those who spend just as much - if not more - and don't make the team, they don't even get the reward of being able to call themselves Olympians.  All many of these once Olympic hopefuls have to show for their years of commitment to a dream is staggering debt.  

Some facts:

1.  The US Government does not financially support the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), the Committee that as part of the International Olympic Committee, nominates the US Olympic team and funds all their sports and activities.  The US Government does not give any money to athletes or to our sports.  The USOC is funded by sponsorship and private donations, as well as TV and broadcasting rights, that accounts for billions of dollars 

2.  Very few Olympic athletes make the millions you see the top most marketable athletes making.  Most Olympic athletes make very little money, spend most of their savings on their sport, and rack up debt during their sport.  I do not have my own house because I cannot afford it and many other Olympians don't either in order to keep competing in their sport. The majority of us are not balling out of control and have to find creative ways to raise funds in order to keep competing in our sports.

3.  The USOC gives money to each individual sport Federation for the operation of their sports.  For example, every year the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation receives funds from the USOC to not only pay its coaches, but also fund its season and provide athlete support.  The decision of how exactly these funds are used is up to the officials of the sport, including in bobsled our CEO, High Performance Director, and our coaches.  The majority of this funding received is spent on funding the travel and expenses for the season for our teams to compete on World Cup tour, which leaves little to nothing left for bobsledders and skeleton athletes on lower development circuits (bobsled is one of the most expensive sports in the USOC).

4.  On the developmental bobsled and skeleton tours, the tours that are required in order to move up the ranks in these sports, are self-funded.  These tours require travel throughout the US and Europe in order to gain experience to contend for a spot on the National Team.  These tours are quite expensive, as you must make sure you have a sled (a bobsled to purchase can cost up to $100,000), all your equipment (our runners- blades- alone cost $5400 a set), provide all your necessary travel, and any related training expenses.  Luckily, our Federation is usually able to accommodate all athletes with sleds, but shipping a sled may cost over $3,000.  In just 1/2 a season as a beginner pilot, I had expenses over $16,000.

5.  The USOC does provide some athlete support in the form of stipends.  These stipends differ from Federation to Federation and are very dependent on your ranking.  If your ranking drops, so does your stipend.  Stipends are given monthly and each federation chooses how to allocate their stipends differently.  In bobsled, the athletes receiving the highest stipends are the one's winning the most medals. 

6.  Athletes do not receive pay-cheques other than the small stipends, which may or may not be adequate to cover living expenses. Athletes must find other ways to support themselves.  One of the main ways to do this is through sponsorship.  However, sponsorship is hard to come by.  I have an Olympic medal, an agent, and have been actively doing PR and appearances for 3 years and yet have no sponsors other than a few product sponsors.  I also host my own fundraisers and rely on donations (to which I'm very grateful to all my supporters). 

7.  The USOC also provides health insurance, but this is also based on rank.  If your rank drops, so does your health insurance.  Also, not all athletes are able to get health insurance.  How many are able depends per federation, but once again, the highest ranked athletes receive health insurance.

8.  The USOC has a partnership with Adecco USA to give athletes the opportunity to work a flexible schedule and train full time.  Most athletes training for the Olympics train over 40 hours per week, so there really is not time to work, but the program is there none-the-less.  I am in the program and struggle to fit hours in because of my hectic schedule, but have the opportunity to make a little money when I can.

9.  The USOC provides housing for some athletes at Olympic Training Centers.  There are 3 Olympic Training Centers in the US and each has a limited amount of bed space.   The ability to get a bed also depends on ranking, with higher ranked athletes having greater access than lower ranked.  However, some Federations choose to use the beds they have for developmental athletes, which leaves the higher ranked athletes out.  Also, not all federations get beds in an Olympic Training Center, as these beds are also dependent on the strength of the sport.  Sports that aren't performing as well receive less beds, leaving those athletes out.  At the Olympic Training Center, food and housing are covered.  Housing differs per rank, some athletes are guaranteed housing for a year, while others live week to week hoping each week they still have housing.  The Olympic Training Centers also try to raise revenue for the USOC, so often beds are filled with organizations willing to pay, like cross country camps here in Lake Placid.

10.  The USOC has many sponsors and some of these sponsors offer athletes discounts and savings.  Also, some of these sponsors provide athlete support by giving athletes the opportunity to make appearances for small earnings.  For example, DeVry University has joined with the USOC to help athletes find a way to earn a degree while competing.  I am part of the program and am currently working toward my MBA. 

Elana with driver Erin Pac after winning Bronze at Whistler Olympic Games

As you can see, this is a very complex issue with many different parts, and everything is based on rank.  In sports like bobsled however, rank can only be accomplished after working your way through the development circuit and then making the National Team.  Working your way to the National Team is something that is funded completely on your own, and unlike track where all you need is a pair of shoes, the expenses in bobsled can be staggering - in the tens of thousands of dollars a season.  Even once you are on the National Team, the expenses are still immense.  Last season I was the number 1 ranked pilot on the US Women's Bobsled team and won a medal at World Championships, but spent over $13,000 on bobsled expenses. 

So I've presented all the facts - nothing to agree or disagree with, because it's simply that - just the facts.  (However, if some of my facts are wrong, please let me know!)  One thing is for certain though, as Olympic athletes we are not in it for the fame or the money.  We are in it because we love our sports, and more importantly love our country.  We are honored to represent the USA and no amount of money could take that honor away.  We each go after the greatest honor of all, winning a Gold Medal for your country, regardless of where it leaves us financially.