Poverty Level Support for Gold Medal Athletes

Facing Shoulder Surgey & 10 Months of Rehab

Facing Shoulder Surgey & 10 Months of Rehab

This is a sequel to Foxcatcher Previsisted, which was ostensibly about the Cannes award winning film showing in theaters currently about Olympic wrestlers, Mark Schultz and Dave Schultz, and their benefactor, millionaire, John DuPont, who killed one of them. The Foxcatcher piece was a pretense to highlight the sorry state of the “system” that supports Olympic athletes in this country (if you want to call it support). I now have more fuel for the fire.

How Well Are US Athletes Supported by the USOC? is the title of an article by the U.S. Athletic Trust. Not well it turns out. There would be national outrage about the revelations exposed by the U.S. Athletic Trust if more people had sons and daughters chasing Olympic dreams, but the numbers are small. These are the best of the best in their various fields of athletic prowess. The ranks are more elite than professional athletes who pull down multi-million dollar contracts annually.

I have listened to the banter on sports talk radio about the obscene salaries that professional athletes make, which are only outdone by the even more obscene money professional sports franchises make off of these athletes. Since the money is off of the athletes, as the rationale goes, the athletes should share in the wealth. It is only fair.

That same logic has recently prevailed at the college level when student athletes from Northwestern University took the NCAA to court and won the right be compensated. College football, in particular, is a cash cow for colleges and universities, and all the money is made on the backs of the athletes who cannot share in it. At least they could not share in it until now, it appears. That may be changing.

Even college athletes get something for their efforts, even if it has not been cash in their pockets. Various levels of scholarship pay for their education. The best college athletes also get to look forward to making the obscene professional money.

Not so with Olympic athletes. Many of them did enjoy college scholarships, if they participate in a sport for which college scholarships are available. Some Olympic sports do not have equivalent collegiate sports. Men’s freestyle and Greco wrestling, for instance, have no equivalent collegiate sport, unless you want to count collegiate folkstyle wrestling which is what many (but not all) of them compete in. After college, however, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

If the rainbow is the Olympic Dream, the road is rocky and difficult, and the only gold one can hope to attain is a medal the size of a tiny pancake. It turns out a gold medal is hardly even made of gold. It is about 90% silver!

One might assume that athletes at the pinnacle of their sports would be well supported as they train year round for an Olympic opportunity that comes only once every four years, but one would be wrong.

In the U.S. Athletic Trust article, the numbers are shocking. I suppose they are not unlike what professional sports may have looked like before professional players’ unions. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has $5 Billion revenue. The United States’ Olympic Committee (USOC) had a $795,917,076 budget in the years examined by the U.S. Trust (2009-2012). During that same time period, the direct expenses that supported the US athletes was $81,622,014.

Only a little over ten percent (10%) of the total USOC budget went directly to support the athletes! (According to the USOC) The Athletic Advisory Council (AAC), which did its own assessment, calculates the amount of direct athlete support from the USOC at only six percent (6%)!

It gets worse. Administrative expenses accounted for more of the funds than what the athletes received (14%). The Olympic Training Center costs were over double what the athletes received (23%). The big number, however, is the “US member support” at a whopping sixty five percent (65%)!

“Member support” means non-profit organizations for the various sports. Of those NGBs, the US Ski & Snowboard Association received the lion’s share (at $3.45 million), followed by USA Track & Field ($2.72 million), US Speedskating ($2.52 million), USA Swimming ($2.49 million) and US Shooting ($1.75). A total of 17 non-profits associations received over $1 million grants each and 37 other non-profits received less than $1 million grants.

Each of those organizations have similar structures to the USOC, in the sense that they are top heavy, with only a small percentage of the revenue trickling down to the athletes. USA Wrestling, for instance, received about $1.5 million form the the USOC and passed about $250,000 on to the athletes directly. That is about the salary for one USOC leader or two USA Wrestling leaders. According to the U.S. Athletic Trust article:

Most athlete stipends, which are reserved for only the top ranked athletes, are in the $400 to $2,000 per month range. Or $4,800 to $24,000 per year, which is below minimum wage for many considering how many hours go into training for the Olympics.  And those are the fortunate ones to even receive stipends.

The very best, the number one person at each weight, receives a poverty level stipend each year. That would include gold medalist and, arguably, the best wrestler in the world, Jordan Burroughs.

In wrestling, only the “world team members” receive a stipend. That means three (3) deep at each of the six (6) weight classes for men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle and men’s Greco – a total of 54 four athletes! To put that in perspective, the total number of wrestlers registered with USA Wrestling for the 2012-2013 year was 176,249. (teamusa.org/USA-Wrestling) Those wrestlers competed for 4153 clubs chartered with USA Wrestling. Only the best 18 wrestlers in the country receive the maximum stipend of $24,000 a year!

Only a small number of wrestlers last more than one Olympic cycle. They drop out, not because their bodies give out, but because their wallets give out.

Maybe all of this would be fine if there was a way to make a living (other than as an USOC or USA Wrestling administrator) from wrestling. I have focused on wrestling only because my kids wrestled. I saw how this all shakes out first hand as I watched my son struggle his way up the Olympic ladder. That climb came to an end as a result of injuries, the surgeries for which I and my health insurance paid.  At the age of 26, he is starting from scratch, while his classmates are well into their careers.

If professional sports leagues were run this way, there would be an uproar. The entire $795 Million budget of the USOC is made on the backs of the most elite athletes in their various sports this country has to offer. It seems everyone gets their cut except for the athletes!  Precious little goes to the athletes, and the funds that do trickle their way down are so diluted that it hardly provides a poverty level sustenance for the very best of the best.

The U.S. Athletic Trust article is bound to be an eye opener for most people. It is all too familiar for me. If you feel that the lack of support for our Olympic level athletes is not fair in light of how we compensate professional and even college athletes in our society, please weigh in with your opinion. Leave a comment. Donate to the U.S. Athletic Trust. Let others know, and help raise the awareness of your friends and neighbors.

If you are interested to know more, here a few more eye opening pieces that reveal the miserly lack of support our US Olympic athletes receive.

 “The Intrinsic Value of Elite Athletes.”

How Olympians’ families have gone broke by supporting their children.

The jobs that Olympians have held while competing, from nurse to janitor.

The actual costs of being an Olympic athlete; costs which are borne by the athletes and their families, and not the USOC.

A Long Slow Divorce: My Sports Journey

Tanner & JonathanWhen I was a kid, I was a true sports fan. Sports was a central theme of family get-togethers. We watched whatever seasonal sport was showing, and discussions at family gatherings always drifted to sports. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat ran through my veins and informed my dreams.

I read books from the 50’s and 60’s of improbable feats of heroism by ordinary athletes and teams. I religiously watched the Cubs, Bears and Blackhawks play on television and listened on radio. I swung a baseball bat for hours alone perfecting my swing and pitched tennis balls endlessly against a garage or brick wall with visions of a major league career running through my head. I galloped through backyard football games with a ball tucked under my arm like the ghost of Gale Sayers, replaying in my mind each night the highlight reel of my performance. My brother and I even played makeup hockey, baseball and football  games with any objects we could find for pucks, sticks, bats and balls – just the two of us.

Some of my earliest sports memories were watching the “Galloping Ghost”, Gale Sayers, run the Wrigley Field gridiron and Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams launch home runs from that same hallowed ground transformed to a diamond. Other icons of my early memories included Bobby Hull, Stan Makita and Tony Esposito, who brought Chicago as close to sports nirvana as my beloved Cubs.

The allure of the world of sports, however, began to unravel not long thereafter. When Wertz terminated the Blackhawks contract with WGN, relegating hockey to the snowy underworld of UHF TV, I was probably 9 or 10. I lost my taste for hockey and never regained it.  I was too young yet to appreciate fully why the Bears home games were not televised. I was very much cognizant; however, of the betrayal I felt when my beloved Cubs traded away Bill Matlock after he won the National League batting crown. The beginning of sports free agency did much damage to my preteen sports psyche. My heroes were not supposed to be traded away like commodities. Worse, they were not supposed abandon my loyalty to the Cubbie Blue. Ken Holtzman, Ron Santo and others followed.

Around the same time, I was introduced to a new sport. The 1972 Olympics in Munich featured what may be the most renowned American freestyle wrestling team our country has known, led by the inimitable Dan Gable. He was a different breed. He won gold without a single point scored against him and was the heart of that Olympic team that took home a many medals.

I became a wrestler that year as a 7th grader. Wrestling was a different kind of sports experience. People did not talk about wrestling. While other sports were all about the communal glory and acclaim of victory, wrestling was grind-it-out hard; no one knew much about it or talked about it; and the victories to be won were as much about overcoming doubts and fears in the heart as about prevailing in competition.

Most teenage boys inevitably find other things that are more alluring than sports as hormones kick in. I was no different. I ran track, played football and baseball, and I wrestled through my teen years, though other things captured my heart. I also abandoning one by one the sports of my youth until only wrestling remained. I carried wrestling into college where academics and other things took on more importance. The ideal of sports gave way to other ideals: the pursuit of knowledge, faith, and a soulmate, among others.

Though it is common for other things to take center stage as life goes on, sports remain a common denominator and topic of discussion and debate for most. It is part of our culture. Sports performances can be ennobling. Who does not remember the inspired performance of the 1980 Olympic Hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union? Michael Jordan’s ability to carry the Bulls to victory on his shoulders and to hit that last jump shot at the buzzer to synch the victory is the stuff of legend. But the luster had long begun to fade for me as I hit adulthood.

It turns out Michael Jordan was human. He gambled. He had a midlife sports crisis. He got divorced. Baseball, football and hockey strikes and lock outs each took their toll. Money has become the heart and soul of professional sports in a way that was not true, or at least not evident, when I was young. Money is a common theme that runs through professional sports, obscene amounts of it. Money dominates talk of college football and college basketball (all wanting a piece of the golden pie). Money, too, it turns out, runs through the veins of the Olympic movement, which seems to have stalled in the sludge of creeping commercialism.

The Olympic ideal began to tarnish with Communist regimes fashioning state sponsored, hand-picked athletes into finally tuned and performance enhanced machines. The fiction of amateur status could not be maintained. The victory of the US hockey team in 1980 was all the more legendary for the fact that the team was amateur David taking on the Soviet Goliath supported by the state. Now any professional can play in the Olympics. The professionals have not only tarnished the shiny Olympic finish, they have cheapened the games. Basketball in the Olympics is just a side show for the NBA. Perhaps the last nail in the coffin for me was the recommendation of the International Olympic Committee to remove wrestling from the Olympics.

For better or worse, money has not tainted wrestling, at least not at its core. There is no money in it.

I do not watch professional sports – at all – anymore. I have not watched a full baseball, football, hockey or basketball game in years with rare exception. I do not go to professional sports events. I have a hard time seeing  past the taint of money and the betrayal of the ideal that once illuminated a young heart and soul.

My sports heroes are, now, my sons who wrestle and their (my) fellow wrestlers. They and their fellow wrestlers (men and women) have my admiration and respect and remind me of what is good and wholesome and inspiring in sports. The hard work and dedication is unparalleled. There is no fame or fortune awaiting them. They do it only for the thrill of victory. They forge their character in the agony of defeat and the countless hours, the blood and the sweat, the focus and commitment it takes to overcome fears, doubts, temptations to take an easier road and all of the obstacles that life can bring to gain the ultimate prize of being, simply, the best of the best.

The glory and acclaim in wrestling is no less communal than professional sports, but it is a small community – more like a sisterhood and brotherhood. It is more like family than community, and it is, perhaps therefore, a stronger tie.

My 24 year old announced in December 2013, after 15+ years of wrestling that he was done. He spent the previous 5 years chasing the Olympic dream, coming within sight of it, yet being just out of its grasp. The injuries demanded their price. The sacrifices no longer made sense. It was not the way he or I hoped it would come to an end, but there is a season for everything under the sun. That season is now over. The journey built deep character and will be cherished.

Just months ago the elite executive board of the International Olympic Committee announced its recommendation to drop wrestling from the Olympics beginning in 2020. It came like a slap in the face. What could be more Olympic  than wrestling? What is more characteristic of the Olympic ideal than the World’s oldest sport? It was not only one of five sports in the ancient Olympics, wrestling was considered chief among them. It was at the foundation of the modern Olympic movement.

The IOC reported through a spokesman that they want to look to the future. Wrestling does not have television appeal.

The IOC seems to want fads, not ideals. Wrestling is apparently is not “sexy” enough, but sexy wears off. True love is not sexy. Ideals do not become obsolete.

For now, wrestling is back in the Olympics. The full IOC voted in September to reinstate wrestling as an Olympic sport. I fear, however, that the future of the Olympics will only be about money, TV ratings and trendy things. The IOC committee recommendation to eliminate wrestling is an omen. We have seen the future, and I do not like it.

The love of sports for me has been a long slow divorce. I will never watch another Olympics without wrestling. For now there is reconciliation, but I fear the Olympics will go the way of hockey and other professional sports have gone for me. I hope that wrestling survives; but if wrestling does not survive, the divorce will be complete.