USA Today: For some Olympic hopefuls, funding is a hurdle
SALT LAKE CITY -- Emily Scott filed for food stamps two weeks ago. This month, the Olympic short-track speedskating hopeful's monthly stipend was cut from $1,950 to $600.
Though she shares an apartment with a roommate and has a part-time job at a surgical supply factory, Scott's expenses come in way above her stipend. Scott, 24, has no idea how she is going to make ends meet. She trains six days a week, about eight hours a day. The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are seven months away.
Scott grew tearful as she discussed her food stamps application. "The last thing you want to be worried about in a year like this is being able to pay your rent and eat, and you want to eat healthy," she said at lunch as she twirled a spoon in a bowl of soup. "That was pretty hard. ... But I'm not the only one suffering."
The story of an aspiring Olympian barely scraping by is not a new one. Outside of a handful of skiers and snowboarders flush with corporate sponsors, other winter athletes — speedskaters, bobsledders, skeleton racers — shared their financial difficulties.
Heading into the Sochi Games, some of the USA's elite athletes live below the poverty line. Scott, who finished second in the U.S. championships in December, saw her direct athlete support stipend cut nearly 70%. At the same time Scott learned about her funding, by happenstance Lolo Jones brought attention to the larger issue.
The Olympic hurdler and perhaps future Olympic bobsledder, who doesn't lack for corporate sponsors, posted a tongue-in-cheek Vine video about her $741.84 check from the bobsled season.
"I wish we could support everybody," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. "But the truth is, our job is to put as many Americans that we can on the podium so we try to prioritize our support. … With our limited resources, there's no way we could support every athlete who aspires to be an Olympian."
The USOC took a step toward improving athlete support Monday with details of a newly created foundation. Unlike most Olympic organizations around the world, the USOC receives no direct government support. It raises money and distributes it to national governing bodies based on performance. According to a recent USOC report supported by its tax filings, revenue and spending are up, but so is direct support for athletes.
For the past year, no governing body, and no group of athletes, has struggled more than speedskating. The USA's most successful Winter Olympic sport also has been the nation's most dysfunctional Winter Olympic sport, mired in a divisive scandal that has fractured the sport at the highest levels. There has been a skate tampering incident as well as allegations of physical and emotional abuse by Jae Su Chun, former head coach of the short-track team.
Mike Plant recently took over as president of the board. Plant is an Atlanta Braves vice president and member of the 1980 Olympic speedskating team. Under his leadership, the board has changed its governance structure, developed a strategic plan and focused on fundraising.
Plant is pragmatic about performance-based funding. "The guys who have a chance to be on podium receive the most funding," Plant said. "No one is going to get rich off of it, but they can take care of a decent standard of living. And it's probably the guys that are aspiring to be on the podium that's a little bit tougher. … I'm not trying to justify it. It's just the Olympic world where we're at because of the limited resources we have to deal with."
Still, some of short track's top athletes saw their stipends slashed. Aly Dudek and J.R. Celski, who set a world record in the 500 meters last season, saw their monthly checks go from about $2,100 to $1,700. Travis Jayner, a 2010 Olympic medalist, is coming off one of his best seasons but saw his funding go from $1,500 to $1,000.
The money U.S. Speedskating received from the USOC for direct athlete support is down about $15,000 from last year to $385,000, Plant said.
Scott has to figure out how to pay her $500 rent and $350 car payment and eat. Her job, earning $14 an hour at the surgical factory will help. She never quite imagined she'd be picking up this skill set when she moved to Salt Lake City to pursue her Olympic dream. Three nights a week she puts buttons over screws on medical devices and labels in bags to send the equipment to other countries.
Even with the job, Scott is worried about this week and the coming season. The surgical factory is closed for the Fourth of July holiday. "No income," she said. If Scott makes the World Cup team she'll be gone for two weeks at a time. "Again no income," she said.
Scott played with her untouched bowl of soup as she described the food stamp application. "They ask you your hours aand why you're not working more hours," she said. Somehow training, eating, training, eating, sleeping may not sound like the best explanation. Nor do trips to Seoul, Torino, Italy, and Moscow for World Cup events.
"It was just kinda low," Scott said, clearing her throat. " A low point."
When she found out she had to get by on a $600 monthly stipend, she cried, panicked and called her father, Craig, in Springfield, Mo. Craig Scott raised his two daughters after they were removed from their mother's home when Emily was in third grade.
Their mother, Carol, is serving a 12-year prison sentence on drug-related charges. Until recently, Scott would send her mother $20 every now and then, but when the cash stopped coming, Scott stopped hearing from her.
After calling her father, Scott reached out to Olympic gold medalist Derek Parra, who helped her put together a sponsorship packet.
She, like other Olympic hopefuls, has a page ( http://www.gofundme.com/16d0o4) on the crowdfunding site gofundme.com. She has raised $190 in two months. Craig Scott has seen his daughter skate three times since she started the sport in 2008, after competing in in-line. But he plans to come watch her try to make the Olympic team at trials in January.
The turmoil had an impact on the team's performance last season, which also is a factor in why funding was cut for skaters like Scott. The team has been divided by those who support Chun and those who sought the removal of the coaching staff.
Chun and his assistant were suspended from the national governing body through the 2014 Games after admitting to being aware that U.S. skater Simon Cho tampered with a rival's skates at a competition.
The rift between the two factions has continued, with a group of skaters still training under Chun, who is a private coach, and another group under new national team coach Guy Thibault.
Scott was a member of the relay team that won a silver medal in the 2012 world championships. This year at worlds, the relay team of Scott and Dudek, who train together, and Jessica Smith and Lana Gehring, who train under Chun, failed to finish in the top eight.
"They are on the ice right after us," Scott said. "Sometimes they say hi, sometimes they don't."
Communication is central to a short-track relay as there are about a dozen bodies on the ice at once with teammates tagging and pushing off. The women's relay team barely spoke to each other in last season's first three World Cup events. As other countries watched the tense team practices, the Americans were quickly discounted as contenders.
The hope is the team will somehow manage to co-exist.
"You don't have to like me but you have to push me hard in a relay," Scott said. "This is our job."