Olympic hopefuls go for green before the gold

  • By RACHEL BLOUNT
  • Friday, July 29, 2016 1:02am
  • Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Sometimes, when Paula Lynn Obanana and Eva Lee travel to badminton tournaments, they book rooms in the official hotel. But not always. “A lot of times, it’s too expensive,” said Obanana, a former Twin Cities resident. “We just can’t afford it.”

It cost more than $100,000 last year for the doubles team to compete around the globe, working their way toward a place on the U.S. team for next month’s Rio Olympics. Their sponsors covered only about 60 percent. So they stayed with relatives and friends, or in cheaper hotels. They rode buses to venues. They didn’t take a coach on the road, and Obanana’s mother, a nurse, worked double shifts at the University of Minnesota Medical Center so she could send them money.

“It was a very tough, very stressful journey for us to get to the Olympics,” Obanana said. “Any expense, we had to find the money ourselves. And you don’t know where you’re going to get it.”

For many Americans, the Olympics call to mind superstars such as Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas, who turned gold medals into millions via endorsement deals and appearance fees. But most athletes — even those who reach the top of the Olympic podium — make a modest living at best. Those without major sponsors must cobble together the money to pay for living, training and competition expenses, and financial stress can distract from the focus required to become an Olympian.

Even those who qualify for monthly stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee usually need supplemental income to cover costs that can soar into six figures. To fill the gap, athletes are increasingly turning to crowdfunding sites such as Rallyme.com and GoFundMe.com. Dick’s Sporting Goods also is helping with its Contenders Program, which allows 170 athletes training toward the Rio Olympics and Paralympics — including Minneapolis wheelchair rugby player Chuck Aoki — to schedule work hours around training and competition.

Friends and communities pitch in by hosting fundraising events and buying T-shirts or other merchandise. Sponsors provide equipment and cash, and many athletes solicit donations through their personal websites. The old-fashioned way — asking Mom and Dad for help — still works, too.

“I don’t think people realize how many athletes are at the poverty line,” said Greg Billington, who will compete in triathlon in Rio. “Some gold medalists make a ton of money. But a lot of people are eating Top Ramen [noodles] and water.”

Unlike other nations, the U.S. gives no government funding to its Olympic sports programs. The U.S. Olympic Committee is a nonprofit that passes some revenue to athletes through the governing bodies of the 39 Olympic sports; in 2014, it contributed $24 million for monthly stipends, health insurance, performance bonuses and tuition assistance for 1,800 competitors.

Rower Megan Kalmoe, born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Croix Falls, Wis., wrote in a 2014 blog post that her stipends from USA Rowing would total about $9,600 that year — below the federal poverty line. She exhausted her savings and checking accounts and had to ask her family for financial help.

“I never, ever, ever train or compete for one single day without worrying about how I am going to pay my rent,” wrote Kalmoe, a three-time Olympian and 2015 world champion. “The bottom line is that I am bankrupting myself just to be able to show up, let alone make the team and win medals. … How fast could we be if athletes didn’t have to worry about affording housing, or food?”

Kalmoe’s mother, Mary Martin, gives her daughter money from time to time. She wishes, though, that U.S. rowers were funded more like those in other countries — including Team Great Britain, whose elite athletes are supported by contributions from the United Kingdom’s National Lottery.

“It would be nice if the sport could pay more, but that isn’t the economic reality right now,” said Martin, of St. Paul. “Megan seems to get by, and I’m happy I can help out. But in other countries, they get a living wage.”

Like many athletes, Kalmoe has jumped on the growing trend of crowdfunding, inviting fans to donate through her website. Public crowdfunding sites are catering to athletes, too, giving them an easy way to reach potential supporters.

Rallyme.com partners with several Olympic sports organizations, including the U.S. Ski Association, USA Curling and US Rowing. Athletes create pages to tell their stories, often with videos and links to social media, and reward contributors with gifts such as signed posters, team gear or a personal meeting. A well-crafted appeal — like the one that pulled in $23,200 for skier Paula Moltzan of Lakeville — can raise tens of thousands of dollars.

GoFundMe.com, which is not limited to sports, says it has raised $663,180 for 141 campaigns related to the Rio Olympics. Obanana and Lee began a GoFundMe appeal in June 2015 and have received $13,845 in donations. That money, Obanana said, was critical to paying travel costs as they competed for a place in the Olympics.

While crowdfunding is taking off, it is not a solution for everyone. Many athletes are uncomfortable asking for money and creating campaigns to market themselves.

“I know people who use it,” said Garrett Bender of Minneapolis, a member of the U.S. Olympic rugby team. “And I think it’s a good thing for some people. But for me, it just wouldn’t feel right.”

As crowdfunding evolves, new models are emerging. On AthleteBiz.com, track and field athletes can offer personal training sessions, speaking appearances or lunch meetings in exchange for donations. They also can set up an online store that gives them a cut of purchases made through the site.

Its users include Amanda Smock, a Melrose native and 2012 Olympian in the triple jump. The money supplemented a USA Track and Field stipend, a shoe contract, a sponsorship from the New York Athletic Club and the income of her husband, Greg. Though the basic crowdfunding model did not appeal to her, Smock said if it had been available before 2011 — when she won her first U.S. title, making her eligible for a stipend and health insurance — she might have overcome her aversion.

“After I graduated from college until 2011, I lost money every year,” said Smock, who retired from competition earlier this month. “I had to make a lot of difficult choices, like competing at smaller meets closer to home or skipping massages or physiotherapy sessions.

“If you take Greg out of the picture, I wouldn’t have competed as long. I didn’t want track to drain my bank account.”

Aoki, a 2012 Paralympian, works 15 to 20 hours per week at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Richfield. That job _ and his work as a marketing assistant with soccer club Minnesota United _ augments his stipend from the USOC and two sponsorships. He also has been living at his mother’s home and has gotten financial help from his parents when necessary.

According to Matt Teske, community marketing manager for Dick’s Sporting Goods, 13 athletes with Minnesota ties are working in Dick’s stores. He and Aoki said both sides benefit; customers get expert advice from world-class competitors, and athletes get the satisfaction of earning a paycheck outside their sport.

“They’ll ask if I can work next week, and if I say I’ve got a training camp or a tournament, they’re cool with it,” said Aoki, whose expenses include specialized wheelchairs that cost $5,000. “Minnesota United is super flexible with my schedule, too. It’s really been nice.”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Aoki said people often assume that once an athlete makes the Olympic or Paralympic team, they never have to worry about money. While that isn’t true, the Rio Games will afford an opportunity to pad some bank accounts.

The USOC’s Operation Gold will pay $25,000 to athletes who win gold medals, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. Some national governing bodies offer their own bonuses; USA Wrestling, through its Living The Dream Medal Fund, will award $250,000 for gold, $50,000 for silver and $25,000 for bronze.

Even for those who don’t cash in, athletes say the Rio Olympics represents the ultimate reward, a priceless experience worth every hard-earned penny.

“On the one hand, it’s tough,” Aoki said. “I don’t know if jealousy is the right word, but you don’t have a 401k. You aren’t saving money. I have a friend who’s opening his own business, and I can’t even imagine doing that.

“But then you think, ‘I’m traveling the world. I’m competing for gold medals for the USA.’ It’s an incredible thing, a privilege. Yes, I’m making some sacrifices. But to me, it’s absolutely worth it.”

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