For many Olympians and Paralympians, the path to Paris is self-funded

Henry Epp May 23, 2024
Heard on:
Ben Washburne and his Paralympic teammates practice on the Charles River in Boston. Washburne juggles training with a full-time job. Henry Epp/Marketplace

For many Olympians and Paralympians, the path to Paris is self-funded

Henry Epp May 23, 2024
Heard on:
Ben Washburne and his Paralympic teammates practice on the Charles River in Boston. Washburne juggles training with a full-time job. Henry Epp/Marketplace

We are now just two months away from the start of the summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris. 

Training to compete in Paris means putting in lots of time and effort, and for many athletes, it’s up to them — or their parents — to come up with most of the funds for training, coaching, travel, equipment and all of the other expenses on the road to the games. 

Those net costs total about $12,000 per year on average, according to a recent report by the Commission on the State of U.S. Olympics & Paralympics, which was created by Congress in 2020. So, many athletes have to juggle training with work.

That includes Ben Washburne, a 23-year-old Paralympic rower heading to Paris this summer. He’s competing for the United States in the PR3 Mixed Four competition — races between mixed-gender teams made up of four rowers and a coxswain.

On a recent sunny Thursday afternoon, the team practiced on Boston’s Charles River. Their coach, Tom Siddall, instructed them from a small motorboat nearby. The focus that day was on form.

A man in a blue jacket and baseball cap speaks into a megaphone, while steering a red motorboat on the Charles River.
Coach Tom Siddall instructs the PR3 Four rowing team during a recent practice in Boston. (Henry Epp/Marketplace)

“Yep, the handle has got to be moving quick in the last few inches to the body,” Siddall told the team through a megaphone. “Really accelerate in the second half.”

Washburne sat in the “stroke seat,” which sets the rhythm for the team. “We’re going for gold,” he said in an interview after practice wrapped up.

In pursuit of that goal, Washburne said he gets a fair amount of support from the United States Rowing Association: access to boats, coaches and training equipment. He also gets a monthly stipend, “which, quite honestly, isn’t enough to cover Boston living expenses, as you might imagine, since it’s like one of the most expensive cities in the United States,” he said.

But Boston is a big rowing town. So that’s where he trains, and he pays his rent by working a business development job at a green energy company.

“That is a full-time job, which makes it a little bit difficult sometimes with all the training,” he said.

But the job is fully remote, with flexible hours and unlimited paid time off, which allows him to get to practice and will help him travel to Paris this summer. But it means that after practice, he’s got emails to respond to.

“I already looked at my messages for what I missed while I was out on the water,” he said.

A man in a blue t-shirt stands in front of a stack of rowboats.
Ben Washburne has a fully remote job with flexible hours, which gives him the time to train for this summer’s Paralympics in Paris. (Henry Epp/Marketplace)

Not every Paralympian or Olympian has this kind of job flexibility, but many have jobs — and some more than one. According to a survey conducted by the congressional commission, under 6% of athletes report having sponsorships. And only half said they receive any kind of compensation from their participation in the Games. That means they have to find other funding sources.

“It could come from people working extra jobs, which a good many Olympic athletes do. They might have some family support, they might get some crowdfunding support,” said Lee Igel, a professor at New York University.

Expenses for high-level athletes, Igel said, add up — equipment, travel training and food. 

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and sport-specific organizations cover some of those costs for some athletes, but their budgets are limited, in part because of the way they’re funded.

“In almost every other country, it’s run through the government,” Igel said.

But in the United States, the private, nonprofit USOPC gets most of its revenue from sponsorships, licensing fees and broadcast revenue. That setup was intentional, meant to contrast with the state-supported Soviet bloc teams of the Cold War.

“We aimed to show the world that the free market and private enterprise sort of built the best athletes,” said Dionne Koller, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and co-chair of that congressional Olympic commission.

The Games have changed a lot since the Cold War era though, she said. For one, they now include many more sports.

“And so the ability of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to support this infrastructure … it’s really showing its age,” Koller said.

And it’s not meeting athletes’ financial needs, she said. Koller was struck by just how many athletes told the commission they feel financially insecure.

“It was a constant concern for them, to the point where they said it affected their ability to train.”

One way to fix that, Koller said, would be direct government funding for the USOPC. Her commission recommended that move and offered a few suggestions for how to do it: taxing sports gambling, adding a donation checkbox to IRS tax returns or establishing a national lottery.

A lottery is part of how the United Kingdom funds its Olympic and Paralympic teams. Great Britain also happens to be the longtime defending champion in the PR3 Four Paralympic rowing competition. Ben Washburne’s boat came in second to them at the World Championships last year.

“We were only three seconds off,” Washburne said. “So, you know, we’re hoping that’s a good sign.”

He’ll be training to close that gap between meetings and emails.

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