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Kai Ryssdal: Given how he did in Beijing, Michael Phelps is one of the first who comes to mind when we think of Olympic athletes. The guy seems to be on TV every five seconds, doing a commercial for something or other. In fact, just this week he became the spokesperson for Mazda in China. But not all Olympians are rich. In fact, most of them aren't, and by a long shot too. There was a reminder today of just how hard some of them have to work to be able to compete. For the past 16 years Home Depot has been giving hundreds of American athletes full pay and benefits to work part-time while they train. But Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson reports that program may have just became the latest victim of the recession.
Jeremy Hobson: Derek Parra knows his way around the ice rink. He won a gold and a silver for speed-skating at the 2002 Olympics. He also knows his way around the electrical and hardware sections of Home Depot. This was a typical day, during his seven years in the Home Depot Olympian program.
Derek Parra: Get to the rink by eight, get on the ice at nine, skate from nine to 11, get to the Home Depot by noon, work from noon to four, come back to the oval by about 4:30, warm up, stretch out...
And despite all that hard work, he says it was the only way to live out his dreams and pay the bills.
Parra: Without a doubt, 100 percent certainty, I would have never made it to the games in '02 if it wasn't for the program.
Parra describes the program's cancellation as a dagger through the hearts of tomorrow's athletes. Home Depot denies the cancellation is related to the economy. Here's spokesperson Jean Niemi.
Jean Niemi.: We're sad to see it come to an end but we have been a sponsor for 16 years and feel the time has come to move on.
William Chipps of IEG Sponsorship Reports says a number of companies are making the same determination about their marketing efforts. After years of double digit growth in sponsorship, he's predicting an increase of only two percent this year.
William Chipps: Granted, companies are facing a new kind of economic reality and they are facing new financial challenges, but at the end of the day they still need to market their products and services.
And he says sponsorship does have a unique ability to connect on an emotional level with consumers. As for the Home Depot athletes, the U.S. Olympic Committee says it will give them stipends for the next year. What happens after that may depend on just how fast the economic recovery comes.
In New York, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.