Sunday, August 24, 2008

The high price of raising an Olympian

The expenses start early -- maybe when a child is in kindergarten -- and can total hundreds of thousands of dollars for parents of elite athletes. The rest of the family may pay a price, too.
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Olympic glory can be expensive.

But the investment has been worth it, at least for the Ali family.

David Ali knew his son Sadam had gifted hands way back when Sadam was 8 years old and dancing around the ring at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Club in Brooklyn, N.Y. That's why the family supported Sadam through 11 years of training, for about eight hours a day. That support helped the 19-year-old lightweight become the first New Yorker to make the U.S. Olympic boxing team since Riddick Bowe in 1988. See Sadam Ali in action

"It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years," says David, a 46-year-old father of five who works in his family's real-estate company. "But I knew I was going to do whatever I had to make sure he followed his dream." Olympian's dad: 'Never again'

For so many young athletes and their parents, reaching for an Olympic berth is a fiscal, as well as a physical, challenge. Think about it: coaches, clothing, housing, food, travel and baby sitters for siblings.

And unlike in, say, China -- where state-sponsored training schools help support athletes -- the U.S. Olympic Committee is one of few national Olympic committees whose athletes do not receive government funding, says Nicole Saunches, a U.S. committee spokeswoman.

For many years, Olympic athletes weren't allowed to accept endorsements, prizes or corporate sponsorships to underwrite training or living expenses. That changed in 1978 with the adoption of the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. And over the past 30 years, regulations have been changed several times to increase financial support for the athletes. In 1988, the Olympic Games began to allow professional athletes to compete. The payoff from a gold medal

Liberalization of the regulations has helped some athletes, but not all. Many families continue to face major financial challenges as they evaluate options for a young athlete.

Talk back: Would you pay to raise an Olympian?

"You want your child to be happy," says David Ali. "I did whatever I had to, to make sure he had everything he needed."

Sometimes expenses mount in ways that can be hard to predict.

Gymnast Shawn Johnson's parents, for example, took out a line of credit on their home and have used that money over the years to cover travel expenses. The debt has made a dent in the family finances, but that's a price parents seem willing to pay. Photo: See Shawn competing

The financial choices crop up the moment a parent notices a child's special talent.

Donna Williams, a high school teacher in Miami, could not have foreseen that her sprinter daughter Lauryn, now 24, would be an Olympian in track and field, initially in Athens four years ago and now this year in Beijing. But she knew Lauryn could run. Photo: See Lauryn in the '04 Olympics

"Lauryn used to run barefoot as a baby," her mother recalls. "She had the worst case of flat feet on Earth, but she was beating the other kids in the neighborhood, and I said, 'You should go on the track team.'"

When Lauryn Williams was 11, she began training with a community track-and-field group in her family's hometown of Detroit. That was relatively inexpensive. The bills started rolling in the next year, when she switched to the Detroit Cheetahs, a local track club.

"That's when we needed spikes, training shoes, entry fees," Donna Williams says. Not to mention travel fees, hotel expenses and meals.

Williams, a single mom while Lauryn trained, credits her friends and family for helping her finance her daughter's efforts. Photo: See Lauryn with her mom

"Lauryn's success is truly based upon the fact that it takes a village to raise a child," she says. "I have had an excellent, excellent base of friends who, when I said, 'We're going to a track meet, Lauryn needs a pair of shoes, I got $50 for a pair, and I need another $30,' somebody always stepped up to the plate and helped us out. Some days I didn't really have to ask. I would come home and find an envelope with $20 under the door. We all kind of pitched in."

When it came time to go to Athens, Donna Williams' best friend raised more than $10,000 to help Lauryn and her mother get there. Lauryn herself raised $10,000 so her father could go. As for China, Donna is paying for that trip with money left to her when her mother died.

"It was divine intervention," she says.

Some athletes get substantial support from corporate sponsorships. Lauryn Williams is one of 12 "Olympic Hometown Hopefuls" sponsored by Bank of America. The bank has been a corporate sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team since 1992.

Like AT&T and Nike, the bank helps families with expenses as well. The Bank of America's Hometown Hopeful Family Center in Beijing is designed to support the families of Olympians with free lunches, dinners and snacks, as well as an Internet cafe and free event tickets. The center expects to host 600 families.

All told, the perks at the center could save a family of four about $1,700 a week, says Joe Goode, a Bank of America spokesman in Boston.

Support for the families can be important because a lot of the stress of an Olympic career falls on the family. It can be tough, says Jan Peck, the mother of Heather Mitts, a member of the U.S. women's soccer team that won a gold medal in Athens in 2004.

Mitts, now 30, started playing soccer in kindergarten, and it was clear even then that she had talent. Development of that talent had a major effect not only on the family finances but on Mitts' five siblings.

"It can be a strain on families, both financially and emotionally," says Peck, who lives in Cincinnati. "It can be perceived by the other siblings that one child is the favorite. And then other children may try to overachieve. The high level of competition also just consumes your every holiday. No longer can you enjoy Mother's Day or Father's Day or Fourth of July as a family, because you're always traveling.

"We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Heather," Peck recalls. "Tournaments, hotel accommodations, private lessons, food, travel, sitters for siblings or pets -- all those things cost money."

The family's sacrifices have paid off in a couple of ways. Mitts' athletic achievements have led to modeling gigs, commercials and TV reporting for ESPN.

"She's been one of those real fortunate that's done very well," her mother says.

That's the kind of future David Ali envisions for his son Sadam, the boxer. The family is committed. The trip to China will cost Ali $15,000 to $20,000 for three weeks, but he isn't blinking. He'll be there, cheering every hook, every jab, every uppercut from ringside.

What's $20,000 to witness something he's dreamed about for more than a decade?

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Ali says.

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Published July 31, 2008

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