Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Funding and Olympic Athletes

USA Today published an article about an Olympic speed skater, Emily Scott, who is training for the upcoming Games in Sochi and had to apply for food stamps to supplement her meager income and stipend from the USOC.

The piece delves into both the pecuniary situation of the USOC (not taxpayer funded, but sustained through its own fundraising) and the weird that's going on in speed skating. It also looks at the particular harsh circumstances of Scott, who comes across very sympathetically in the story. But whenever I read stories about support or the lack thereof for top tier athletes, be they speed skaters, bobsledders, or gymnastics, I find myself asking the following--what do we owe to the very gifted and passionate to helping their Olympic dreams come true?

Some might say that we don't owe athletes like Scott anything. Though Olympic athletes represent their countries (and though I get embarrassingly jingoistic during the Olympics), I don't really think it matters whether or not their athletes are successful unless we're in the midst of some propaganda war some other country. And even then, it doesn't matter. I'd prefer to measure the success of nations in how well they provide for citizens, educate children, and curb injustice. (This view makes it hard to be an American at times.) If only they awarded gold medals for those sort of accomplishments. (The Scandinavian countries would kill in that type of Olympics). And if Olympic athletes competed under their own names instead of their nation's banner, I don't think they'd train less hard to get there. Athletes compete for themselves, their families, their coaches, their fans, and for the love of their sport. And to win. These guys really love winning.

And they are all self-recruited (unless they're from China). As a writer, I'm very aware that my career (like acting, singing, filmmaking, etc.) is also self-recruited. No one has ever wondered about the dearth of pop culture writers the way they have about engineers or the people who are going to come up with adaptive solutions to climate change. No one asked me to become a writer. My mother, just the other day, asked if I had considered teaching seriously. So when I complain about being underpaid, I always feel a bit guilty. If I stopped writing tomorrow, it wouldn't really matter to anyone except to me and I could find another job, given my educational background. (On that subject--hire me maybe?)

As a fan of U.S. gymnastics, the problem of funding isn't as dire as the one presented in the article about speed skating. The sport I love is fortunate--it's one of the highest profile ones at the bigger of the two Olympics. And in this country, the top athletes seem to be well-supported. In the case of women's gymnastics, the elites are minors and don't have to worry about paying for their basic expenses since they are still being cared for by their parents (and receive a training stipend when they make the national team). Many of the top male gymnasts are reaching their athletic peaks while competing (funded for the most part) by NCAA programs.

Yet many may recall Mohini Bhardwaj's predicament back in 2004. She was training for the Olympics as an adult and was not on the national team (so she didn't get a stipend). She had to deliver pizzas to help defray costs until Pamela Anderson stepped in and gave her a generous gift.

But I don't claim to have any special insider info so perhaps I'm way off base. I'm sure that some gymnasts and their families struggle with training costs and that we've perhaps lost some promising talent over the years due to financial hardship. And that's why it's not as simple as saying that participation in a sport at the highest levels is voluntary and we don't have to help bolster some athletes who need the financial help.

If we take the stance that since this is voluntary and we don't have an obligation to make your dream come true then what do we end up with? The only people who can afford to do less popular Olympic sports are those who come from privileged backgrounds with means of outside support. This is yet another reason on the very long list of reasons that it sucks to be poor (or poor-ish) in America. You don't get the best education, healthcare, and you may not get to fulfill your athletic potential.

(The same sort of logic applies to the current state of journalism in the country. With so many writers forced to take unpaid internships well after they leave college, the only folks who can afford to enter the Fourth Estate and find jobs are the ones who can toil for free for a year, sometimes longer. This strategy obviously leads to a diversity of voices--all across the upper middle class to upper class socioeconomic spectrum. That's why the first two seasons of Girls launched a thousand blog posts.)

I don't like reading books or articles written by just upper middle class white guys. I don't want to go to the comedy club and only see nerdy Jewish men. And I don't want to tune into the Olympics and only get to see those who had both the talent and the trust fund to make it to the top. I'd like to see diversity--athletic, economical, and otherwise--at the Games.

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