Most Olympic athletes face costly road

August, 6, 2012
8/06/12
11:27
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When Angel Bovee, a female boxer who fought to get the sport included in the Olympics for the first time, reaches out to companies to help other Olympians get jobs, the companies often respond along the lines of “Why would they need a job? Aren’t they millionaires?”

[+] EnlargePhelps/Lezak
AP Photo/Bob BukatyUnited States' Michael Phelps, Garret Weber-Gale and Jason lezak, bottom, celebrate winning the gold medal in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in 2008.
The Olympians represent our country on sports’ biggest stage, and the London Summer Games are expected to generate more than $7.3 billion in sponsorship revenue. We see Olympians all the time endorse companies like Nike and Kellogg’s. So they must be rolling in the dough, right?

Wrong. When the games are over, most American athletes will return home without the precious few big-money endorsements and will return to school or work and hope to be able to do it all again in four years.

The costs are high. Garret Weber-Gale, who won two swimming gold medals in 2008 as a member of the 4 x 100-meter freestyle and 4 x 100-meter medley relay teams, says he’s lucky because he’s been able to swim and train at his alma mater, the University of Texas, with his former college coach at no expense. And he did receive an endorsement deal with Speedo just ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

But even with free training and his endorsement, Weber-Gale says, “Being a swimmer is expensive. I spend $500 to $600 per month on groceries, maybe even closer to $700. I spend another $200 to $450 per month on massage therapy, a chiropractor and a professional stretcher. Then you’ve got living expenses, gas and all the other normal expenses.”

USA Swimming reimburses Weber-Gale $400 when he travels for a grand prix meet, but he says that doesn’t cover everything. “When I go out of town, it’s probably at least $1,000 for the flight and meals.”

USA Swimming also covers expenses for world championships and the Olympics. The sport is also unique in that it has a program that allows its 56 top athletes to receive a $3,000 monthly stipend in return for making appearances on behalf of USA Swimming.

Yet the money a swimmer and his or her family will spend prior to having the chance to receive the stipend is considerable.

“If you’re a parent who wants to raise an Olympic swimmer you’re going to spend tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Weber-Gale, who missed qualifying for this year's team and is undecided about trying again for 2016. That doesn’t include the money spent on watching their child in meets and the Olympics, which he says could run to $30,000.

Most Olympians and their parents will admit the price tag is worth it, but what of the athletes who train like Olympians but never become one?

Angel Bovee worked as a television producer in Albany, N.Y., when she first began training for the Games.

“Being a boxer, you don’t get funded, especially when you’re not at the elite level. For my first 15 or so fights I flew myself -- no coach, no nothing. Just flew coach and then found someone to be in my corner once I got there,” says Bovee. Even if she won, regulations prevent Olympic-style boxing from having prize money. Fortunately, the television station where Bovee worked was supportive, and she was able to balance her paying job with boxing.

By 2002, Bovee knew if she wanted to compete at a higher level she’d have to put it all on the line. She couldn’t continue to work full time in Albany and get the training she needed. Women’s boxing wasn’t yet an Olympic sport, but there was hope it would be included in the 2004 Summer Games.

Bovee quit her full-time job as a television producer, took out a $15,000 loan and parked her Plymouth Sundance at the Poughkeepsie train station -- where she would live for the next six months until the weather forced her to find better shelter.

“During those six months, I got certified as a personal trainer and was able to get jobs in various gyms and train people in boxing and traditional personal training,” says Bovee. “It was 16-hour days of training people starting at 5 a.m. Then do your own training late morning and then another lunchtime session training other people and then you would train people when they got off work.”

Asked how she sought out sponsorships, Bovee says, “I didn’t really have any contacts. I actually got this book, “The Athlete’s Guide to Sponsorship,” and read it. I learned how to do my own website, I did my own photography -- everything I thought I would need to get myself out there.”

Bovee says she was never self-sufficient, but she did get a small sponsorship that helped pay for her travel to some of the week-long competitions. She represented the U.S. at the first two World Championships held for women, serving as team captain in 2002. Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee declined to include women’s boxing in the 2004 or 2008 Summer Games, despite the sport having met the base thresholds for inclusion back in 2002. By the time it was included for London, Bovee had already exceeded the 35-year-old age limit for boxing.

Bovee spends her times these days working with Adecco Group, which formed a career management services partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee to assist Olympians, Paralympians, coaches and hopefuls acquire job skills and find employment.

After she stopped training, Bovee landed a scholarship and returned to school to get her master’s degree. She ultimately found her way to Adecco.

“Our Olympic sponsor companies tend to be more on board because they already support the USOC in other ways,” said Bovee.

Other companies are beginning to catch on to the benefits of having Olympic athletes as employees, says Bovee. “When you’re the best in the world at something, those skills transfer. You know how to buckle down and focus and use your time efficiently.”

Kristi Dosh

Sports Business
Dosh covers sports business for ESPN. She is an attorney, founder of BusinessOfCollegeSports.com, and joined ESPN in October 2011.
Author of "Saturday Millionaires: How winning football builds winning colleges."

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