How Can Olympic Athletes Find a Real Job?

ByCatherine Valenti

March 1, 2002 -- For many Olympic athletes, all that glitters may not be gold.

Sure, a few standout athletes from this year's Olympic Games will likely be able to parlay their medals into endorsement dollars. Figure skating's newest sweetheart, gold medal winner Sarah Hughes, for instance, has already gotten her picture on a Wheaties box and many marketing pundits expect her to garner the lion's share of endorsers' attention this winter.

But for the more than 200 other American athletes who competed in the Games, the euphoria of competing in the Olympics will soon come crashing up against the harsh realization that they need to find a job just like the rest of us.

"There are over 30 medals that were won for the U.S. Of those … you're really only talking about the top three to six that are going to have the kind of deals in the million dollar range," predicts Mike Paul, president of public relations firm MGP & Associates and an adjunct professor of communications and marketing at New York University. "Not everyone who wins a gold medal will have Madison Avenue shining down on them."

Unfortunately for them, many Olympic caliber athletes lack what many of us working stiffs already have — work experience and a solid résumé. In order to support their rigorous training schedules and travel to international competitions, many athletes either live on grants, work part-time jobs or put off their education. So finding a traditional job can pose a challenge for them.

Agony of Defeat

Former Olympian Jimmy Pedro knows this story all too well. A three-time judo star who made his first Olympic appearance at the Barcelona Games in '92, Pedro was widely expected to win the gold medal in Sydney in 2000 after capturing the bronze medal in the '96 Atlanta Games.

"I was very successful," says Pedro. "I won a world title in '99, was favored to win gold in 2000. I was hoping that if I could do that then at least I could get some bonus money and at least have a three to six month cushion that would last before I had to start looking for a job."

But it wasn't to be. Pedro finished fifth in the 2000 Olympics, and left the competition knowing that he would have to abandon his Olympic aspirations for good.

"At this point I was a father of three, with zero income," he says. "I knew as soon as I got home from Sydney that I was going to have to find a job right away."

Looking for Olympians

Luckily, Pedro did find something pretty quickly. Employment Web site approached the judo master shortly after the 2000 Games about starting up an online service that helps connect employers with ex-Olympians who are looking for jobs.

The site, called TeamUSAnet, features a resume builder, job listings and an Olympic mentoring network in which athletes can seek advice from former Olympians who successfully made the transition from being an athlete to the working world. Among the volunteers is five-time gold medal speed skater Eric Heiden, who is now an orthopedic surgeon at the University of California, Davis.

Since the end of the Salt Lake City Games, the site has garnered much more interest from athletes than from employers — around 34 companies have posted jobs so far compared to around 500 ex-Olympians looking for work. But Pedro is optimistic that more companies will come on board once word spreads about the site.

"We're hoping this is the one place where anybody who is interested in hiring an athlete will come post their job," he says.

Speakers' Corner

One opportunity for ex-Olympians is the speaking circuit, where they can earn thousands of dollars a pop for motivational speeches or meet-and-greet sessions with the public. Bill Yardley, event consultant for Barber & Associates, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based firm that finds speakers for events, says athletes can earn anywhere from $2,000 to $80,000 per speech or public appearance.

But for these positions, only the high profile need apply. Barber's roster of Olympian speakers includes such luminaries as gold medal decathlon legend Bruce Jenner, track and field gold medalist Jackie-Joyner-Kersee and captain of the 1980 "miracle on ice" hockey team Mike Eruzione.

Athletes who have overcome adversity are also good candidates for the motivational speaking circuit, notes David Schwab, director of strategic marketing and media for sports marketing firm Octagon in McLean, Va. Schwab says snowboarding bronze medalist and Octagon client Chris Klug, who received an organ transplant to combat a degenerative liver disease to compete in the Games, is one example.

"In America it's difficult to turn a bronze into gold, but Chris will be able to do it," predicts Schwab.

Still, the fickle nature of celebrity means that if any of these athletes are going to capitalize on their fame, they'd better do it fast. Many of these names will be long forgotten a year from now, so any opportunity for endorsements or speaking engagements will be fleeting for most, says Schwab.

Athlete and a Scholar

While most Olympians probably won't go the way of Olga Korbut, the four-time gold medalist in the 1972 Munich Games who was recently arrested on charges that she shoplifted $19 worth of groceries, the harsh reality suggests that Olympic athletes should not only keep up their education, but perhaps even stick with their day jobs as well.

One company that supports working athletes is Home Depot. The retailer's role in the U.S. Olympic Committee's Olympic Job Opportunities Program got the spotlight during this year's Games with speed skater Derek Parra's newfound gold medal fame. The program pays a full-time salary and benefits to Olympic hopefuls like Parra for working a flexible 20-hour work week which gives them time them to train and travel to competitions.

The home improvement retailer has employed 283 athletes since it started the program in 1992. While most athletes stay in the program while they're competing, only about a dozen athletes who have finished their Olympic careers continue to work for the company.

"We'd like to see more of them make Home Depot the choice for their career," says Home Depot spokesperson Mandy Holton.

Others are hoping that Sarah Hughes, who has quipped that her next goal is to gain a near-perfect score on her SATs, will be the role model for Olympic athletes to come.

"In Olympic sports, you're lucky to make it to one Olympics. What do you after that, how do you want to represent yourself and your family and your country for the rest of your life?" asks Paul. "That's the big question you have to answer."

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