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Economy hinders athletes training for ‘10 Winter Olympics

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

Casey Puckett is 37 years old and has two children, including a daughter with severe lung problems. His brother, a financial planner at the investment firm Edward Jones, offered to help find him a cushy job with the company.

But Puckett's medium-length beard and sun-worn face suggest where his heart and ambition lie — out on the slopes, not behind a desk.

The four-time Olympian isn't ready to give up his pursuit of gold as a member of the U.S. Ski Team despite a tough economy that has cut his prize and endorsement money and made it more difficult to balance the financial demands of raising a family and pursuing his dreams.

"At this point, a 9-5 office job wouldnt really fit," Puckett said. "It's a great honor when you're named to an Olympic team. I don't know, maybe I'm addicted to it. I love the lifestyle."

Puckett isn't alone. As the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver approach, athletes are finding that the stress of full-time training now comes with the added worry of depleted bank accounts in hard economic times.

Puckett left competitive skiing after the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City to coach. He now is trying his hand at ski cross, a fledgling sport that features skiers racing side by side on a serpentine track.

Puckett is one of the best in the world at the sport, but he's hardly a wealthy man.

Most athletes receive stipends of just a few hundred dollars a month from the United States Olympic Committee. Puckett's multiyear sponsorship agreements with Visa, Universal Sports and others will carry him through the Games that begin in Vancouver on Feb. 12, but those deals barely cover his training costs.

Puckett tried coaching on the side to earn more money, but those jobs are difficult to fit into a schedule that already includes competitions and high-level training.

And the economic downturn has taken away much-needed extra income that athletes once used to make ends meet.

Skiers, for example, had been able to earn prize money at pro tour events, but that source of additional cash disappeared as hurting companies dropped support for the tours.

That development produced yet another financial ripple: The decline in the number of tour events led to a drop in sponsorship cash for individual athletes.

"We had all these pro events, and now they're nonexistent," Puckett said. "They went away. That was another source of racing, training and income. To lose that was not only difficult because of losing the prize money and the experience, but some of my sponsors counted on that for TV exposure. So I got cut back by some of my sponsors."

Athletes in sports ranging from speedskating to curling all have learned to do more with less and to find new ways to support their Olympic dreams.

Getting creative

Shannon Bahrke turned to coffee.

The pink-haired mogul skier from Tahoe City, Calif., already was a connoisseur of the java bean when, after being sidelined with an injury, she put together a business plan for "Silver Bean Coffee" to sell her own blends as a way to generate income for her and her teammates.

Bahrke offers ski-themed coffees with names like "Powder" and "Velvety Groomer." And for every bag of "athlete blend" she sells, $1 goes to an Olympic athlete and the charity of the customer's choice — money that will come in handy for skiers who, like Bahrke, find themselves paying for part of their training out of pocket.

Bahrke says she's spent about $20,000 of her own money to train this year.

"People think that you must live in this huge house and drive this and Im like, Oh, you funny little thing,'" said Bahrke, a silver medalist at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. "I think as the economy has gotten hard, we're kind of the first thing that companies let go. It's like, 'We're cutting employees, why am I paying her to represent our product?' So that makes it really tough."

Teammate Michelle Roark, who won the U.S. Championships in moguls earlier this year, tapped similar entrepreneurial ambitions as a means to help make ends meet.

Using her degree in chemical engineering, she opened Phi-nomenal, a company featuring all-natural perfumes and colognes. She offers a perfume named "for Real" and others called "for Focus," "for Confidence" and "for Balance." Roark also has branched out to sell specially branded skis for women.

"I was always looking for a way to support my lifestyle," Roark said. "I was looking for something that could help me afford the lifestyle I love, keep pursuing this dream and this passion I have with moguls skiing."

Neither business has generated much income as yet.

"I'm working two jobs, and I have to pay for them," Bahrke said of skiing and her coffee enterprise. "Hopefully, they'll both turn into paying jobs, and then I'll be all set."

Both women said they hope to use their businesses to support Olympic athletes, even after they are done competing.

"Something we both have in common is wanting to leave a legacy," Bahrke said. "I want to carry my company into the future and support the same programs that got me this far. If I can support athletes and their Olympic dreams — that's a legacy I'd love to leave."

Sho Kashima was among the athletes who lost a job and was left scrambling when recession hit.

Kashima, also a moguls skier, once supported his training by working at Home Depot through a program that gave Olympians full-time jobs with flexible hours that allowed them to train. That program — and Kashima's job — were eliminated when Home Depot pulled its USOC sponsorship.

"I went to a few camps just to make a little extra cash just to get through this season," Kashima said. "The USOC helps out a little to begin with and my personal sponsors Im hoping will kick down a few bucks and maybe some incentives for performance and TV time."

U.S. Speedskating was sent reeling in October when Dutch Bank DSB went bankrupt, voiding a sponsorship and leaving the team with a $300,000 budget deficit.

The team found short-term relief in the most unlikely of places: Comedian Stephen Colbert used his satirical news program, "The Colbert Report," to raise money and close the gap. Still, the team's long-term financial situation remains gloomy.

"The Colbert Report is a nice plug for this year, but it's not the same as having a sponsor that's on board for four years," U.S. Speedskating President Brad Goskowicz said. "After these games, we'll be in the first year of the next quadrennium, and everyone's eyes will turn elsewhere. It will be a lot more difficult to get sponsorships after these closing ceremonies are done — our worries will begin again."

Corporate pullback

The stirring buzz that surrounded the Summer Games in Beijing last year quickly was tempered by the collapse of the world economy.

By year's end, many companies that once supported the Olympics were struggling. Some declared bankruptcy. Others were unable to justify sponsorship spending to their shareholders.

Bank of America, Home Depot and Kellogg's ended their support of the USOC this year. Kodak and Johnson & Johnson declined to renew long-term sponsorships of the International Olympic Committee.

But USOC officials were determined to find a way to increase funding to athletes despite the lost tens of millions of dollars in support.

They slashed budgets at USOC headquarters, cutting back on travel and administrative costs and laying off more than 50 workers.

As a result, the USOC managed to boost funds to its national governing bodies (NGBs) from $11.1 million during the 2006 Torino Games to $16.5 million for Vancouver.

"Todays economy has made it very difficult for our athletes and NGBs to maintain consistency and continuity of their programs," acting USOC CEO Stephanie Streeter said at the time. "We believe this funding is essential in supporting our teams and helping our NGBs prepare their athletes and on the ground in Vancouver next winter.

USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky pointed to new sponsorships with Procter and Gamble and renewals with Deloitte and Touche and AT&T as positive signs for Vancouver. Terms of those deals were not disclosed, but the values typically range between $10 million and $25 million, depending on the level of sponsorship.

We are pleased with the success the USOC has seen on the sponsorship front heading into the 2010 Vancouver Games, especially in light of todays economic challenges, he said.

Marketers said the public perception about sports sponsorships has improved since last year, when members of Congress questioned whether sporting events were a wise use of corporate dollars during the recession. But the recovery might be coming too late for Vancouver.

"The problem that exists is that budgets have been spoken for for '09 and there was some uncertainty for the early part of 2010," said David Carter, principal of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. "So it may be hard for these companies to be agile enough to take advantage. Some of it is a timing gap that will play into this."

What's more, Carter said, many companies already are setting their sights on the 2012 Summer Games in London, which are expected to receive far more publicity.

"The Olympics are a little bit tough this time around, sandwiched in between Beijing and London," he said. "It almost appears you're reading more about London than Vancouver."

Getting by

The ability of the USOC to boost its support of athletes for Vancouver has, at the very least, kept top athletes on track to perform well in February. And in recent months the USOC has been able to replenish some of its coffers with the Procter & Gamble, Deloitte and Touche and AT&T deals.

"The Olympics still persevere and people still care," Carter said. "There's still something very special about them, and I think that gives corporations a fair amount of cover. I think they like the branding halo of the games and can make a very strong case for being there."

Carter said the Procter and Gamble deal was a big one for the USOC because of the number of commonly used products that make for a sensible fit with athletes.

Under the terms of the Procter and Gamble deal, several athletes including speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, skier Lindsey Vonn and bobsledder Vonetta Flowers, will appear in commercials for everything from cough drops to deodorant.

"They're a great, red meat American company," Carter said.

Sandusky said companies have been aggressive in promoting their ties to the Olympics since the 100-day countdown began in November.

"I have several sponsors right now and am very thankful for that," said short track skater J.R. Celski, who has support from Crest, McDonald's and 24 Hour Fitness, among others. "The support we get from these guys is tremendous. It really helps, it honestly does, because Olympic athletes really have a hard time getting by."

Not that any athlete would ever make excuses.

"It's never easy," aerial skier Ryan St. Onge said. "It's never, 'This is what I want to do and here's what we'll pay you to do it.' I think in sports, it goes from different levels of going from hard to harder, and people that can find a way do find a way."