2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #13: The Greatest Innovation at the Olympics

The greatest innovation in U.S. Olympic History (for Olympians): No, it is not the BMW designed USA bobsled, the Lockheed Martin designed Mach 39 speedskating suits, instantaneous video replays on iPads, or Shawn White’s new frontside double-cork 1440 in half pipe.

No, perhaps the single greatest innovation for the athletes heading to Sochi is “Crowdfunding”. In case you are not familiar with the concept, here’s a definition, “crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.” There is now a suite of relatively new online social media tools that allow athletes, Olympians and potential Olympians to cash in on the largesse provided by the intersection of goodwill and need. By using the power of social media to gather a large number of small donations, athletes are able to find financial support to cover their expenses. Some examples of these sites include GoFundMe.com, IndieGoGo.com, Dreamfuel.com, Rallyme.com

Except for a small handful of  “A-list” athletes like Shawn White, Apolo Ohno or Bode Miller, most Olympic athletes toil in anonymity for more than a decade in order to make an Olympics and scrape by through a combination of parental support, off-season jobs, and small stipends from their sports federations.

For well-to-do athletes or those in high profile sports (snow-boarding, figure skating, skiing) where ample funding is available a single-minded focus on training and preparation is all that is required. This is also the case for many athletes from nations that fully fund their athletes, think Russia or South Korea.

For the rest, a constant ever-present worry is “how will I pay for this?” -be it new equipment, travel, lodging or even food. At its extreme it reaches the levels that Emily Scott, newly minted Olympian in short track speedskating, has faced. With a mother and a sister behind bars and raised by a single father with a blue collar income, Emily, at one point, was forced to rely on foodstamps to feed herself.

One might think that making the Olympic team would finally put these fears to rest, but in reality that success breeds a whole new brand of financial worry. Sure, now their travel and food and lodging are covered to travel to the games, but just as abruptly parents and others who have played significant support roles are faced with massive expenses to try and get to the games.

Olympic qualifying trials are often held close to the date of the Games themselves to ensure the very best team is selected, but this then creates the situation of the parents and supporters of the Olympian having only weeks to find flights and lodging in cities that have been booked solid for months and with flights subject to the supply and demand algorithms of Sabre (the airline yield management software) and hotel pricing often reaching $1000/day or more at the Olympic site.

Even a weeklong trip to a place like Sochi can involve multi-leg flights to save money and then incredibly steep prices to find a place to stay anywhere remotely close to the venues. Craig Scott, Emily’s father IS coming to the Olympics, thanks in large part to crowdfunding, but here’s his flight plan: Kansas City to Chicago, Chicago to Washington DC. Washington DC to Istanbul, Istanbul to Germany, Germany to Sochi. Here’s how Craig Scott will get to Sochi. He will board a plane in Kansas City and go to Chicago. From Chicago he will go to Washington. From Washington he flies to Turkey. From Turkey he flies to Germany.

For middle class parents there is always credit cards, but what about young spouses, fiancés or boyfriends/girlfriends? Often those that participated or sacrificed the most are forced to watch and cheer from afar.

Enter Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has existed for years in various forms – be it innovations looking for startup money, patients needing medical treatment seeking support, or artists with a new idea, but this emergent social media platform is potentially at its best in supporting potential Olympians. Finally there exists a way to tap into the general support of the USA! USA! Spirit and collect large numbers of small sums to support the real needs of an athlete and their family.

Emily Scott is perhaps the most direct example. After applying for foodstamps she decided to create a GoFundMe page and at the same time had the luck of a USA Today article to lend visibility to her plight. In particular, other than feeding herself, she was most anxious that her father Craig would join her in Sochi. 24 hours later she had $30,000 in donations – most of them small, but in quantity, and by late January she had $49,000 from more than 650 donors - more than enough to ensure that her father could join her at the games.

Emily's gofundme page

The list of athletes receiving significant support is substantial – from Emily Scott raising over $50K to fellow short track speedskater Kyle Carr raising $14,000 to bring his mother to the games. Lindsey Van, part of the new retinue of women’s ski jumpers, raised $20,000, Sugar Todd a long track speedskater raised almost $6000 to bring her parents to the games, while teen brothers and Danny and Drew Duffy raised over $50,000 on RallyMe to cover their expenses.

Others, though have struggled with getting visibility in order to generate support. Bobsledder Elana Meyers has only raised $738 to date proving that just having a campaign is no silver bullet.

Through Crowdfunding, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to ensure that those that compete, and those that sacrificed for their success have the support required to share in the experience. This is particularly important given the relatively new tradition of the “Order of the Ikkos” award where each medaling Olympian gives a medal to the one person who supported them the most. Hard to give a medal to someone thousands of miles away because they couldn’t afford to come....

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Epilogue: The Post Olympic Hangover

I am particularly envious of this emergent source of funding. After graduating college I trained full time for eight years and made one Olympic team where I earned a silver medal. Along the way I used credit cards to fund my dream. As a recent college graduate I was able to apply for an receive over 50 credit cards which I used to pick up and rotate $87,000 in debt to by the time I retired from the sport. My parents also spent years paying off their visit to Lillehammer, Norway. Here's a REAL picture of the 50+ credit cards I used to fund my dream. I eventually paid them off...

50 credit cards - to a guy with no job

For olympian Alex Izykowski, the burden fell to his parents, who are still filling in the financial hole they dug to ensure his success and bronze medal in the 2006 Torino games. “My hometown community really pulled together to help fund my family’s expenses to travel to Torino, but the 10 years of debt we accrued leading up to my Olympics is an ever-present burden they are still paying off.” Alex’s dad agreed, saying, “Its like a post-olympic hangover you can’t shake.”

Sadly it is hard to ask for crowdfunding support in retrospect so Alex and his parents have little to no opportunity to tap into this emergent funding source. However, for new athletic hopefuls, crowdfunding fuels an olympic dream while reducing the post-apocolyptic olympic hangover.

2008 Short Track Nationals: apparently I don't suck THAT much as an announcer...

I was invited to announce the national short track championships over the weekend at the Petit Center in Milwaukee, WI. My co-announcer, Jeff Brand, let it slip shortly before I headed up that he has announced over 100 meets and I was forced to confess I've announced only 1 - granted it was a biggie. The days were long and the rink was cold. Something about the Petit Center I can't figure out. Now matter how you dress, the longer you are inside, the more the chill creeps into your bones. Then, even when you leave, it oozes outward - leaving you shivering despite the hot shower, or heat on high in the car. This and it is probably 50 degrees in there - perhaps it is the humidity?

Some of the top skaters not at the world championships were present - Ryan Bedford, Travis Jayner, Alex Izychowski to name a few, and the races were impressive - 16 national records set on not the world's fastest ice. I did my best to try and spice of the announcing and get some audience participation with only mixed results. Its easier with a few thousand spectators than a couple hundred parents involved in getting their skaters ready. My favorite intros were the midget and pony categories as they tended to showboat a bit on the "big stage" of the nationals.

Meanwhile, Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis continued their winning ways - with Apolo winning the overall world title, and Shani winning yet another 1000 meter individual distance world championship. Jeff Simon - still healing from his broken collar bone - managed a 4th place finish in the 500m as well.

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was also one that at least one of the officials found upsetting. I had gotten wind 'whispers' in the locker room from the American Cup men's finalists - and sure enough on one of the last finals of the meet, the American Cup 1500 A super final, the 6 boys on the line decided to pull a little stunt.

Fred Benjamin called them to the start, and as J.R. Celski, Kyle Carr, Kyle Uyehara, Chris Creveling, Kyle Carr, and Travis Jayner crouched over, poised in perfect racing stance, he shot the gun and... nothing happened. No one moved a muscle.

 It was dead silent for a good 3 or 4 seconds before everyone got the joke. They stood for a good 10 seconds before skating forward and thats when an angry Benjamin shot the gun again and called them back, chastizing them and giving them all a false start. It was surprising though - for 25 years of racing - the gun goes off, and the skaters skate - to not see them go - it was, well... I think everyone was just confused for a moment - "did my ears deceive me?"  It was hilarious...

 Chastened - only a few of them put on a superhero pose at the line for the second start - clearly there were more plans in the works... but they eventually began racing.

 Other highlights were catching up with old friends Jen Butterfield (and husband Tim), Olu and Brenda, Paul Marchese and Pieter Dykstra, Goskowicz, Kooreman, Wilma Boomstra, Amy Peterson, John Diemont, Haj Sano and many others. It just goes to prove - the best way to get a group of diverse people to bond is through mutual suffering - between the long days and chilly temperatures, travel, and noise there was a sense of belonging in the group of officials, judges, parents, and athletes. As usual, sleep was in short supply as several of us decided to go watch Olu Sijuwade play his father's 45 year old sax in a stirring performance of soul, jazz and poetry along with other artists and poets.

The fact that we would lose an hour that night to daylight savings, and that the races started early was not lost on any of us - yet we went anyway, settling for a couple hours of sleep in return for a night of great music in an intimate venue.

 During the long weekend I also announced the masters national championships. Was it just coincidence that just days earlier I had skated (in my work clothes) some fast laps with Denton Frederick "to help him train?" I haven't sharpened my skates since the 1998 Olympic trials 10 years ago - but putting in a 10.1 second lap wasn't that hard... I'm reasonably certain I could still skate a couple low 9's....

Having read Andrew Love's blog... and met world masters's champion Marty Ohaire - is there at least one more speedskating competition in my future? Only time will tell...

 -John