Wednesday, 17 August 2016

How do Olympic athletes pay their bills?

By Edward Etzel, Published The Straits Times, 16 Aug 2016

Two weeks ago, while sitting in traffic, I noticed a weathered bumper sticker with a little acoustic guitar on it that said: "Real musicians have day jobs."

I presume most of us do have real day jobs, but as the Rio Olympic Games began, for some reason - maybe because I'm a former Olympic shooter - I wondered about the hundreds of young women and men who have tried (with many failing) to represent the United States in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Real musicians and Olympians seem to have a lot in common. They have ambition and enthusiasm for their craft. But, like musicians, these talented young people have to pay their electricity bills too. How do they support themselves and their families, all the while having to diligently train, often several hours a day, over the course of years? How did I pull it off?


Many might assume that since athletes are at the pinnacles of their respective sports, they're all able to live comfortably, either from endorsements or competing professionally. After all, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps' estimated net worth is US$55 million (S$74 million).

But most who do make it to Rio receive very little funding, and most don't make a lot of money off their sport outside of the Olympics, either. For example, two-time Olympic javelin thrower Cyrus Hostetler recently told The Washington Post that the most he's ever earned in a year is US$3,000.

Sure, there are many celebrity athletes who are professionals, have corporate endorsements and have their airbrushed faces on a Wheaties box. Basketball stars like Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler will take a hiatus from their NBA training camps, compete in the Olympic Games and then return to a life of material comfort. But these folk are few and far between.

The average US Olympian simply does not live in the highest level of the financial stratosphere. According to the Track and Field Athletes Association, there's a "steep pyramid of income opportunities" for track and field athletes, with only a "select few" able to earn a very good living. Fifty per cent of track athletes who rank in the top 10 in the US in their event earn less than US$15,000 annually from the sport.

Unlike many other countries, the United States federal government doesn't fund Olympic programmes, though some athletes get special funding from their national governing bodies. For example, USA Swimming reportedly provides approximately US$3,000 to national team members of its top 16 ranked athletes. But other aspiring athletes are actually unemployed and need to be supported by their families - and some families have even gone bankrupt trying to support their son's or daughter's Olympic dreams. Leading up to the 2012 Games in London, US News reported that gymnast Gabby Douglas' mother had filed for bankruptcy, in part due to "the high cost of her daughter's training, which involved living away from home for two years".

A number of aspiring Olympians - like decathlete Jeremy Taiwo and swimmer Chuck Katis - have resorted to the crowdfunding website GoFundMe to help finance their training and various travel costs.


In reality, countless hopefuls and current Olympians hold down real jobs, working all shifts. You name it, they do it: waiter, teacher, coach, construction worker, public speaker, janitor and many other jobs. For example, swimmer Amanda Beard has worked as a model and as a public speaker to earn a living.

Many are undergraduate and graduate students who train at their universities. Some serve in the military. Several fortunate athletes live and train at regional Olympic training centres like those in Colorado Springs and Chula Vista.

The US Olympic Committee has created athlete employment programmes that offer some support and employment opportunities. For example, the Team USA Athlete Career and Education Programme exists to link aspiring athletes with organisations like Coca-Cola and Dick's Sporting Goods, among others, that provide full- and part-time employment.

In my case, I recall preparing over two Olympic quadrennials to get ready for the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games (a team I did not make) and the 1984 Los Angeles Games (which I did make and medal) as a shooter. It was not a financially comfortable time in my life.

I supported myself with a mix of funding from the G.I. Bill, a graduate assistantship teaching physical education classes and work as a shooting coach. I also served part-time as a member of the US Army Reserves. All told, from working three jobs, I earned US$500 a month (around US$1,500 today), plus the cost of tuition.

In fact, I just received a Social Security statement of earned income during those eight years. It doesn't reflect the wages of a rich man during my Olympic quest - and even so, I was probably one of the lucky ones. Many more fail in the dream to make an Olympic team than those who actually get to walk behind the flag at the opening ceremonies.

Chasing the Olympic dream can be exhausting. It's not a straight path. There are skilled athletes who have had to drop out of their chase for a medal because of finances.

So when you watch the Olympics, consider the personal stories of the 2016 US Olympians who might be making less than US$12,000 a year.

I can tell you from personal experience that it's not easy. But I can also tell you that it can be quite rewarding.

The writer is professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University.

This article first appeared in the, a website of analysis from academics and researchers.

Success sweeter if athletes are backed from the start
Ordinary Singaporeans and companies can play a bigger part in helping aspiring champions pursue their dreams
By Marc Lim, Sports Editor, The Straits Times, 16 Aug 2016

Singaporeans love a winner.

How else can one explain why people camped out at Changi Airport as early as 10pm on Sunday, to catch Joseph Schooling's 5.45am arrival yesterday? Or why children were given permission to skip classes by their no-longer-kiasu parents who, for one day, dared to put Schooling ahead of schooling?

It was heartwarming to see the outpouring of affection for Singapore's Olympic gold medallist, and it wasn't confined to ordinary Singaporeans, too.

The Singapore Government bestowed a great honour on the 21-year-old by formally recognising his Rio Olympic Games effort in Parliament. The House gave him and his parents a standing ovation.

Corporate Singapore has also been quick to congratulate the star athlete. From banks to transport companies and restaurants, everyone has been quick to forge a link with the champ. One eatery is offering a 50.39 per cent discount, an ode to Schooling's Olympic record time in the 100m butterfly. He has been given gifts ranging from air miles to restaurant vouchers.

While all these gestures to honour him are laudable, one cannot help but wonder why such enthusiasm for sport isn't always this forthcoming.

As has been well documented, Schooling's parents, Colin and May, spent close to $1.5 million of their money to send him to study and train in the United States so he could realise his Olympic dream. Their investment is not something most Singapore families can afford.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which oversees sport, has a budget of $2 billion for financial year 2016, just a fraction of the $73.4 billion pie for the nation. With such limited funding for sport, Singapore athletes can always use more help.

Budding sportsmen have programmes such as the Singapore Olympic Foundation-Peter Lim Scholarship, which has a $10 million kitty. Could more corporates be persuaded to start similar programmes?

Among the 25 athletes who make up Singapore's Rio contingent, rower Saiyidah Aisyah and sailors Justin Liu and Denise Lim are among several who made it to Rio largely on their own dime.

Gearing up for the Olympics can be very costly; Liu and Lim slept in their car. Singapore athletes often spend over a year competing and training with top athletes overseas, as exposure at home is not enough. Will help come their way if they want to mount a challenge to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games?

Skateboarding, for example, is set to make its Olympic debut in 2020. There is a small group of talented skateboarders in Singapore. Some boast skills that make them among the best in Asia. Yet the sport does not even have an association to represent it here. Could a corporate come to their aid? Champion and nurture them?

All athletes have dreams. But these can't come true unless someone invests in these dreams. Perhaps a fitting way to celebrate Schooling would be by investing in would-be Schoolings.

Rio 2016 will also be remembered as the Games where Singapore nearly did not get to see the action live. Last-minute negotiations ensured that live coverage, but one wonders - if corporates are so keen to celebrate the magic of Olympic achievement now, why had it been so difficult to get sponsorship to broadcast the Games live?

While companies can play a bigger role in supporting Singapore's athletes, far simpler acts can also go a long way to show them that people care.

Among the Schooling fans I met at the airport yesterday was a nine-year-old softball-loving boy who said that the swimmer's perseverance inspires him to also win an Olympic medal.

While this boy's father - who had brought him to meet the champ - may be inclined to help him realise that dream, how many of us are as willing to allow our child to pursue sport seriously, like the Schoolings? And how many of us will go out of our way to support local athletes in competition, and not only when they return with a medal?

Everyone loves a winner - the average Singaporean, corporates, politicians, the media. But what will make victory sweeter is being able to say that you played a part in helping Singapore's athletes get there in the first place, rather than jumping in after they cross the finish line - in record-breaking time.

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