How Much Does the Olympic Dream Cost?

Column by Garrett McCaffrey, SwimmingWorld.TV Producer

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 15. THE highest achievement in swimming is Olympic glory. The Olympic Dream is what drives swimmers to spend thousands of hours a year staring at the line at the bottom of a pool.

To support this Olympic Dream, the United States government created the United States Olympic Committee, from which governing bodies like USA Swimming were created. In 2008, these non-profit organizations brought in more than $150 million. That is the price tag on Olympic glory, but what does it cost? How do Olympians continue to pursue this dream? In 2010, the USOC and USA Swimming had the opportunity to put some of their income towards financial support of the Olympic dream, but decided that the athlete's performance alone was not enough to earn such support.

One year ago, the Pro Swimming Task Force was formed. Its main objective: financial support for the professional swimmer through the Athlete Partnership Plan. Had it passed, the original plan would have increased the annual $21,000 stipend and extended the reach of financial support from 42 members to 55 members of the national team. All athletes who placed in the top six in any Olympic event at U.S. National Team Trials, who also are top 16 in the world, would have made $50,000 this year from USA Swimming and the United States Olympic Committee. The proposal would have accomplished the goal of financial support for professional swimmers, but yesterday it fizzled out at the United States Aquatic Sports Convention.

Some progress was made this year. The annual stipend for pro swimmers is now $24,000, which is offered to a maximum of 55 U.S. swimmers ranked in the top 16 in the world. This improvement can not be ignored, but neither can the question, "What went wrong with the Athlete Partnership Plan?"

In the end it appears that the deal breaker came down to name and image rights. The athletes' agents argued that the athletes already do enough for the governing bodies with their name and image rights, and the 2008 profits for USA Swimming and the USOC would back the agents' argument. Record-setting financial years were generated by the record-breaking performances of athletes in 2008. How were the athletes rewarded? The top names were given sponsorship deals, but after the dust from the Olympic fireworks settled, the rest of the Olympians were left to face the question, "How can I afford to continue swimming?" The Athlete Partnership Plan provided an answer to that question, but agents saw the original proposal as a sponsorship not a stipend. They argued that the athletes do enough in their performances to promote both USA Swimming and the USOC.

When this difference was pointed out to National Team Head Coach Mark Schubert, he revised the APP by removing the contractual obligations which included name and image rights. When the revised Athlete Partnership Plan was presented, the USA Swimming marketing department pulled out its financial support. Last week, the USOC sided with USA Swimming's marketing department. No contract, no pay raise.

How quick the marketing departments are to bite the hand that feeds them. Record-setting financial years were generated by the record-breaking performances of athletes in 2008. Two years later, when the option to help support these type of performances comes across the marketing desk the response is, "What's in it for us?"

As governing bodies to Olympic sports, the bottom line should not be the bottom line. Training for the Olympics is a full-time job. The APP was an opportunity to take care of the financial burden of chasing the Olympic dream, and the marketing department of USA Swimming, along with the USOC, have rejected the proposal without the rights to name and image. What's in it for them? How about the Olympic Dream? Every four years, they sell millions of viewers on the Olympic Dream. Why aren't they buying into it?

Someone owes Dagny Knutson an apology. She was sold the Olympic Dream. You could say that someone owes Knutson a $26,000 apology, but in reality she's lost much more than that. At this time last year, she had hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the form of scholarships, in her lap. She passed on those college scholarships to chase the Olympic Dream. Her chase has led her across the country and you can be sure she was banking on that $50,000 to support her dream.

Was the Athlete Partnership Plan perfect? Absolutely not. But the goals were true to the sport, the process was transparent, and the revisions were in the best interest of the athlete. It's tough to explain to swimmers, who follow a different bottom line, the intentions of the governing bodies created to support their dream.

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