So how much does it cost an American athlete to become an Olympian?
I guess that all depends. A recent article in Forbes magazine featuring 2012 Olympic Bronze medalist Maya Lawrence (whoop whoop) highlights her struggles as she fought for her chance to represent the United States in London in fencing. For the high level competitor, an athlete can spend up to “$1000 for a uniform and blades cost roughly $100 each”. Combined with lesson fees (another 100-150 per month) and travel expenses for competition, your basic fencer is looking at minimum $20,000 per year. And I think that figure was extremely generous. Another article in the financial blog, the Fiscal Times even lists fencing as one of the 7 Olympic Sports That Cost the Most to Train In.
With the stories of gymnast Gabby Douglas and swimmer Ryan Lochte’s financial woes as they trained for this summer’s games making news, the problem obviously isn’t exclusive to fencing. A regular conversation I have when talking about Olympic sports is always affordability.
For out of pocket expenses you need only a calculator to add up the number, but when you’re talking about the time lost building a career, the figure becomes a little bit harder to put a price tag on. Ask any of the athletes, positioning themselves for an Olympic run . It is a twenty four hour, seven day a week undertaking with American athletes performing the remarkable balancing act of keeping themselves financially afloat and competing against the state-subsidized athletes of other nations.
The U.S. government, which gives no subsidies to the U.S. Olympic Committee – especially with the economy in the dumpster – has no intentions of shelling out dough for Olympians. Fair enough. Unfortunately, though, this leads to low wages for this summer’s winners, with American medalists taking home $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. That’s pretty sweet if you bring back four gold medals like swimmer Michael Phelps did, adding on to his eight from Beijing in 2008. Measly when compared to Russia that dished out over $100,000 for a Gold medal, or Italy that offers salaries to its athletes along with prizes of up to $200,000 for bringing home the most coveted prize in amateur athletics.
And with sponsorship deals only going to a lucky few, and employers looking for increasingly higher levels of expertise, what is a champion to do after dedicating decades of their life to the Olympic movement? Because at this point it looks like a ton of kids are putting their futures in jeopardy for an all expenses paid trip to London, some Nike sneakers and a free pair of Beats by Dre headphones. I’d like to think we could do better but, honestly, who wouldn’t want a pair of free Beats?
The truth is this, every Spring amateur collegiate athletes graduate and face a crossroads where they’re forced to decided whether they will continue with their athletic “career” or move into the “real world” and start at the entry level with everyone else. Some people go left, others go right and there are consequences with both decisions. But talk to a 22 year old kid about consequences and they’ll tell you about the ramifications of doing one too many keg stands. Young adults make gutsy choices and don’t have foresight to make reasonable decisions. Especially when those decisions involve giving up life-long passions. Looking back, my main problem is the lack of education and helping our kids come to those types of decisions. Explaining what the inherent risk of becoming a member of a National or Olympic Team entails and living with that choice. Programs designed to help an athletes cope during and after their career.
But don’t get me wrong. I have no regrets about the moves I’ve made personally, and I think that I had had a level head that helped me cope with the ups and downs of being an amateur athlete; but not everyone does. And, truthfully, sometimes, when I look back on the toll that this effort has taken on me emotionally, mentally and fiscally, I wonder how it all would’ve turned out if I went the other way.
Anyways, I guess everyone is just praying that someone will see their potential, look at all the time sacrificed for greatness, and all of those medals and decide that person in front of them is different from the normal applicant. That they are seeing someone who is bright and intelligent with more discipline, heart and courage than they have ever seen before.
Yes, that was a shameless plug.
‘Cause after going through the process, that’s what I’m kinda hoping for and it’s a lot to gamble on. But taking calculated risks and making them work is part of what being an athlete is all about. And as I start to transition from Ben Bratton the fencer to Ben Bratton the worker, I’m realizing that this is no easy task and one of the hardest battles of my athletic career.
So I turn to you, my dear reader. Now that you’ve marinated on that a little bit, what do you think? Are our athletes getting taken care of? Is the system broken? What more can we do? Will I ever get employed?
Let’s talk this thing out.
Admin Note: I sat down to write a cover letter for a job application and this post is what turned out. Damn, inspiration is a remarkable thing.