For the love of the game

Olympic athletes have big dreams, but empty wallets—Should the government step in?

By Sarah Sidlow


This past week, the Dayton City Paper team has been hard at work asking the tough questions: “When does rhythmic gymnastics start?” “How do you score points in canoeing?” and “Who was that oiled-up Tongan flag-bearer at the opening ceremony?” (His name is Pita Taukatofua, by the way.)

But have you ever wondered how these Olympic athletes get paid? Mostly, it’s in sweat.

To start, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) pays the athletes exactly zero dollars for appearing at the games. Big-time athletes in popular sports like swimmer Michael Phelps or gymnast Gabby Douglas can cash in on corporate sponsorships and big endorsement deals (spoiler alert: Gabby probably doesn’t actually eat corn flakes for breakfast every morning). Some athletes also pad their accounts with prize money from competitions and tournaments throughout the year, and may be paid a modest monthly stipend from the boards of their respective sports. But for many, the reality is holding down a part-time job, relying on generous donations, and getting creative.

Take Ibtihaj Muhammad—a fencer on team USA and the U.S. Olympic athlete to compete in a hijab. Her sport can cost upwards of $20,000 a year, and no one is lining up to put her on a Wheaties box just yet. Even with big endorsements from Visa and Dick’s Sporting Goods, the cost of the Olympic experience is staggering. So, Muhammad crowdfunded her family all the way to Rio.

For the athletes who do get there, there is good news because it turns out you can put a price on an Olympic win. The U.S. Olympic Committee shells out a medal bonus to athletes who perform at the top of their class—$25k for gold, $15k for silver, and $10k for bronze. To many, this government-sponsored boost is not only deserved, it’s paltry. They argue that as Olympians, athletes take on more than the responsibility of representing themselves or their teams—they serve as ambassadors for their country. Therefore, they should be paid for the work they do for their governments.

For the record, the U.S. prize for a gold medal hasn’t changed in a number of years, and is pretty meager compared to some other country’s offers, like Malaysia’s $600,000 prize for a gold medal—not that they’ve seen any since 1956.

Moreover, supporters argue, athletes pay more than a financial cost to compete in the games—years of training, high medical costs, and the psychological repercussions of competing and losing no doubt take their toll. Plus, consider the early retirement age—and the fact that years of fencing lessons might not prepare you for a career after you hang up the sabre.

But others say there’s no room for government dollars in Olympic sports. This lifestyle, they say, is the athlete’s personal choice, and so it must be paid for by their own means. The chance to achieve in a way athletes everywhere can only dream of isn’t too shabby, either. They argue the brand-name endorsements, sometimes worth millions, and public adoration are more than enough to compensate their atypical lifestyles. And finally, they say the government really has no business meddling in the lives of athletes.

The bottom line: there are more than 11,000 athletes in Rio—and some will go bankrupt being there.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at


Helping hands are not handouts

By Tim Walker

Intangibles matter. They make a difference. Art, sports, culture – these are examples of things that, although they cannot be touched, help to define us as a nation. These same intangibles influence who we are, how we see ourselves, and how our country is seen by the rest of the world. They make a difference, they provide a boon to our national psyche, and for these reasons the Olympics and, by extension, our Olympic athletes do matter. Therefore, just as the National Endowment for the Arts does with artistic American pursuits, our federal government needs to provide more financial support to subsidize our world-class Olympic athletes.

Admittedly, not every person is a sports fan. But few can deny the ability of a high-profile sporting event to bring people together behind a common cause, to unite us and fill us with – in the case of the Olympics especially, with its US v. Them subtext – an almost universally patriotic fervor. Witness the amazing American swimmer (and stoner) Michael Phelps, with his decade of dominance over the international swimming world—witness Florence Griffith-Joyner or Carl Lewis or recall, if you’re old enough (as I am), the 1980 American Olympic hockey team, which won the gold medal after defeating the Russians and then Finland in stunning upsets in Lake Placid—and in doing so gave a weary and jaded nation something to cheer about.

Unlike other countries, the United States does not provide government funding to its Olympic Committee. In 1978, the passage of the Amateur Sports Act (revised and renamed The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act in 1998) appointed the United States Olympic Committee as the primary body for all Olympic-related athletic activity in the United States. It specifically named the USOC the coordinator for U.S. athletic activities directly relating to international competition, including the Olympic, Paralympic, and Pan American Games.

The law allows the USOC exclusive control over the representation of American athletes and terms associated with the Olympics. However, as a result, the USOC is also solely responsible for fundraising the amount of money needed to send athletes to the competition, maintain training facilities, secure sponsorships, and pay its staff. More than 550 athletes traveled to Rio to represent the United States in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, and many of those athletes are bring forced to turn to crowdfunding, donations, part-time jobs, and outright begging in order to support themselves in their quest for Olympic glory. A recent investigation by the Washington Post found that less than 10 percent of the funds gathered by the USOC went to cash payments to athletes; the vast majority went to executive salaries and grandiose Olympic training centers where fewer than 13 percent of our athletes actually train.

A nation, it seems to me, is more than just a collection of millions of individuals who all happen to live within the same governmental borders. The very idea of America, our country, these 50 United States, has been held up for hundreds of years by many as a shining example to the rest of the world, a republic which does things differently and which means something to freedom-loving people everywhere. Our federal government – that government that exists by the people, of the people, and for the people, as Lincoln once said – has a responsibility to its citizens. To protect and serve, yes – to provide us with a stable homeland where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be enjoyed freely, absolutely – but there should be more than that. Our government has a responsibility to make this nation a great place, a land of the truly free, where those who are brave enough can pursue their dreams, and represent our united citizens in athletic pursuits which we can all marvel at, envy, enjoy, and be proud of.

The United Kingdom, for instance, pours about £543 million – about 709 million American dollars – from its Department for Culture, Media, and Sport and the National Lottery into UK Sport, an agency that manages funding and partnerships for the country’s Olympic athletes. The UK’s Olympic athletes are eligible to receive the equivalent of $20,000 to $37,000 per year based on their performance, and that’s in addition to other services and training support UK athletes receive. In another example, the Canadian government invests about the equivalent of 153 million American dollars into their Olympic athletes annually, and senior athletes receive $1,500 monthly stipends. Some athletes are given extra funding if they have won medals in the past.

Our athletes represent us. On the field, on the track, in the pool and, on the mat, our athletes are carrying our flag in Rio, proving to the world that there is more to America than military interventions, racial strife, gun violence, and Donald Trump. Is it too much to ask that our government recognize the importance of our athletes and, in turn, step up to provide them with the financial support they so desperately need?

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at


Glory over gold

By Don Hurst


The government should not pay our Olympic athletes. Usually when I write these pieces I rely on statistics, facts, and logic to state my case. I can’t do that here. This is all just from the heart – what the Olympics mean to me.

As I write this, my 9-year-old son sits on the couch next to me watching the women’s heptathlon. Forgive me if the writing is disjointed, but I have to answer repeated questions like “How can they run so fast? How do they not trip over the hurdles? What if they do trip over the hurdles?” Since the opening ceremony, I have been answering questions. “How can they swim so fast? How do they not fall off the beams? How can they swing around the bars without puking?”

These athletes have captured his imagination. He watches them push the boundaries of human performance, and he pictures where a decade of hard work could take him. Every piece of furniture is a hurdle. Our dogs are rival sprinters. Anything sturdy enough to handle his weight transforms into a pommel horse.

Never before has he witnessed athletes who train just as hard, if not harder, for no guaranteed paycheck. These athletes show us what is possible when we strive for greatness just for the sake of being great. Sure, a few select Olympians like Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas score tons of endorsement money. But the majority of athletes, toiling in more obscure sports like badminton or the trampoline, do so just for pride and glory.

What inspires us more? Cam Newton dabbing his way into the end zone and millions of dollars? Or Simone Manuel, the first African-American woman to win gold in the 100-meter freestyle, crying and telling all the girls in the world that they can achieve greatness as well?

Paying our Olympians a salary would make their struggle easier. But it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not a gold medal that makes a champion. It’s the waking up at 4 in the morning to train before school; it’s the struggling through your day job with sore muscles; it’s the scrounging and saving to make it to the meets; and all the other countless sacrifices along the way that forge a true champion.

There are thousands of reasons to quit every day. The true champions are those who remain after everyone else abandons the pursuit.

The Olympics are about more than just individual champions. They show the world what can happen when committed individuals join for a common cause. My son can name the entire U.S. women’s gymnastics team. He loved them before they won gold because all the other countries’ teams look alike. He thought USA was the best because we have different types of people.

I never thought about it that way, but he made a great point. The popular narrative is that we live in a divided country where different races can’t get along. The U.S. female gymnastics team is proof that our differences don’t have to separate us. They work together and cheer each other on for a cause that should unify all Americans no matter their ethnicity, economic background, sexual orientation, religious preferences: greatness.

The diversity of our athletes shows that glory can be the birthright of any American regardless of background. Kim Rhode, a staunch Second Amendment supporter, became the first woman to win medals in six Olympics. Forty-two-year-old Kristen Stewart squeezed training in between her day job and her son and still won a gold medal. Simone Biles, born to a drug addict and placed in foster care, won two gold medals.

Olympians teach us how to win, but they also teach us how to lose and get back up. Missy Franklin, a swimming juggernaut in the 2012 games, has struggled this year. Search her name and you will find quotes like “the greatest American disappointment in Rio.” She finished dead last in her heat. That’s hard. When interviewed during one of the worst moments in her life, in between the sobs, Missy said, “If a disappointing meet is the worst thing that happens in my life, then I have a pretty damn good life,” and then she vowed to return greater than ever.

Our Olympians show us what we can become. They are the American Dream made real. Hard work and sacrifice leads to greatness. Maybe not to gold, but the journey, the struggle – that’s the mark of a champion. Even those who don’t share the podium have already proven their spirit.

Their sacrifice for no definite financial gain is noble. It shows our children that striving for greatness is its own reward. Paying our Olympians would enrich our athletes. Not paying them enriches us all.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at


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