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Point-Counterpoint: What the olympics represent

<ong>The purest form of sport – By David Sacks

Tonight the opening ceremony in Vancouver will kick off another year of Winter Olympics. For the next few weeks, we will watch sports that almost all of us only watch once every four years, including cross-country skiing, figure skating, ski jumping and speed skating, among others. We will be amazed at the skills that these athletes have, and even more so when we find out how normal their lives are outside of the Olympics.

 Since the Olympic Games were reincarnated, there has been an aura surrounding amateurism. Tradition says that Coroebus, who was a cook, was the first Olympic champion. Jim Thorpe, who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, was stripped of his medals after it was revealed that he participated in semi-professional baseball prior to the Olympics. Perhaps the most well-known Olympic event of all-time was the ice hockey game between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1980. Part of the lore of this game was that the U.S. team, composed of college students, defeated the Soviet Union’s team, made of professional athletes. In fact, many experts who followed hockey at that time claim that the Soviet team could have defeated most NHL teams.

 Just a few days ago The New York Times ran an article detailing the struggles that some athletes have to deal with in order to make it to the Olympics. Jilleanne Rookard, a speed skater with an abundance of talent who hoped to compete in the Vancouver Olympic Games, had financial troubles that were jeopardizing her participation. Unless she received financial assistance, she would be forced to stop training. Word of her situation spread and donations poured in, which enabled her to compete.

 Rookard’s situation is not that rare. Olympic athletes, like any other elite athlete, need to make tremendous sacrifices in order to train and compete at the highest level. This is especially true for speed skaters, as there are only four 400-meter tracks in America. And while these athletes put in as much work as baseball or basketball players, some of whom earn upwards of $20 million every year, some Olympians never reach six figures.

 However, there is something to be said for athletes who have full-time jobs and are still able to devote countless hours every week training for their sport. It may sound coldhearted not to stand up for these athletes, while so many others are profiting from the Olympics. However, these stories and the obstacles that these athletes overcome only heighten my admiration for them.

An amateur athlete is how sport began and is sport in its purest form. Olympic athletes are much like college athletes on any level – they are full-time students but also train and compete in their respective sports. One cannot help but watch these athletes on the football field every Saturday in the fall or on the basketball court or ice during the winter and wonder how they are able to do it. None of these athletes make any money in college, and most do not turn pro. They do it for the love of the game. When so many athletes seem just be going through the routine motions while competing, obsessed with being the highest-paid player and earning a bonus in their contracts, isn’t it refreshing to be able to watch athletes who are obviously competing out of love of their sport and a love of competition?

-David Sacks is a Carletonian columnist


Fundamental problems with our most global event – By Justin Rotman

By Justin Rotman

When NBC brings tonight’s opening ceremonies into your living room, know that they paid $820 million for the rights to broadcast this year’s Winter Olympics.  After they show the stadiums and venues, know that they cost around $6 billion to build. When scenes of the city and the mountains flash on your screen, know that Vancouver and its surrounding area will generate about $10 billion in revenue and benefits.  And when they show the athletes walking into the stadium— the reason why there is an Olympics to watch in the first place— know that most of the 216 members of Team USA, as well as many of their counterparts from across the globe, live paycheck-to-paycheck year-round just to be able to compete this winter.

While the lives of Olympic superstars like Michael Phelps and Shaun White are well-known and chronicled beyond the 2 weeks we gather every four years to watch and cheer them on, the struggles of many more American athletes go unnoticed and undiscovered.  For every Phelps, there is biathlete Haley Johnson, who creates snow-themed greeting cards to earn a little extra pay.  For every White, there is speed skater Jilleanne Rookard, who moonlighted as a deejay at a roller-skating rink and ate the leftover pizza for dinner during training.  In a world that sees Tiger Woods earn $100 million a year in endorsements and Alex Rodriguez bring in over $30 million every season in salary alone, it is puzzling to think that the athletes that bring us together as a nation every four years like neither of these men can, do not always know where they will be living the next month as they train to follow their dreams and represent their country.

The difficulty lies in the fundamental problem of a consistent source of income.  In professional sports, teams pay athletes in the hope that the monetary return from their performance will outweigh the paycheck they write.  There is no such organization for Olympic hopefuls, though.  The United States Olympic Committee does not have the money to supplement every training athlete, and there is no organization that benefits directly from the athletes like professional teams do.  Could NBC help out?  Not so much.  Besides the obvious complications involved in such a deal, the network stands to lose $200 million on coverage of the Games due to a lack in advertising sales.  Hmm…perhaps A-Rod could donate the $340,000 he essentially earned from each one of his strikeouts last season?

The economic crisis has only made matters worse.  In October, US Speed skating was in serious trouble after its primary sponsor, Dutch bank DSB, declared bankruptcy.  Without the help of comedian Stephen Colbert, who started a telethon that raised over $300,000, it is uncertain where the organization would be right now.  Still, though, with no sponsor lined up for the 2014 Games, questions will continue after Vancouver.  Ever since the Home Depot ended its Olympic sponsorship program, in which it paid athletes full-time wages and benefits for part-time work so they could train, the situation has only become more difficult for Olympic hopefuls.  If an athlete does not have a company that sponsors them individually, they can be in real economic trouble.

As we gather around our televisions and come together as a nation in a time where politics and demographics divides us daily, it is important to notice that the athletes we root for every night are human beings just like us.  They have families to feed and households to support.  Because the 8 hours of training a day that it regularly takes to compete for as spot in the Olympics affords little time for a steady source of income, many of these competitors struggle in ways that are widely unknown.  These athletes come into our lives for 14 days every 4 years.  They unite us as a world and a nation and give us memories we can’t get anywhere else.  They dedicate their lives to the pursuit of their dreams and would be thrilled to earn 1% of what their counterparts in baseball and basketball do.  The only bigger shame than the distortion of those worlds is the fact that there is no fix coming anytime soon.

-Justin Rotman is a Carletonian columnist


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