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.

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One thought on “Poverty Level Support for Gold Medal Athletes

  1. Pingback: Foxcatcher Re-Visited | Perspective

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