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.

Vancouver Journal #12: Days, Places and Faces

Vancouver Journal #12: Days, Places and Faces closingA week ago today and I was entering BC place to “work” closing ceremonies. Donning a white jumpsuit and a radio, I was one of just a handful that were allowed on the field with the athletes. My job? A “spotter” – I was to identify where key athletes were sitting for the cameras during the ceremony, and then, during the concert following, bring them over for interviews. I had three main athletes to find: Apolo Ohno, Alex Bilideau (first Canadian Gold medal winner) and Ryan Miller (the USA Hockey team goalie). Fred Gaudelli, our producer, had been selected to produce the closing ceremonies and penciled me in for this role as a bit of a thank you. Fred is awesome.

Again, I couldn’t believe my good fortune – to be on the actual field with the athletes!? Only 3 non-athletes were allowed and I was one of them. During the preproduction meeting, I surprised the director (who didn’t know me from Adam) by just texting Apolo and asking him to join us during Alanis Morrisette for an interview. He replied quickly, “Yes!” so I checked off one of my three athletes off the list.

The three weeks I spent in Vancouver were over in a blink of an eye, yet they left an indelible impression on my mind, again proving out some theories on time captured here: http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/how-to-live-almost-forever/

I’ve been asked over and over what some of the most significant moments and memories are of the games, and there are a host of associated snapshots in my head, some of which I’ll share below, with the most important to follow in my final journal.

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Scene: BC Place stadium – closing ceremonies

At the beginning of the opening ceremonies, I was uncertain where to be – the director had told me to get onto the field ASAP as security was tight and even with my special credential I might still have a difficult time getting on the field, so I lined up with a zillion young snowboarders in white near the east gate in anticipation of blending in and getting onto the field early. What I didn’t know is that a few moments later, these 300 kids were going to sprint onto the field, and their intertia would carry me with them until I was finally able to dodge off to the side and, embarrassingly, walk all by myself back to the edge of the field as they began their dance routine. Here’s a link to video I started taking before I realized the trouble I was in (I almost went down and would have been trampled pretty severely!)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cdG5-4nXXo]

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Scene: The P & G (Proctor and Gamble) house. Johnny Wier is just ahead of me in line to check in and take a photo for his credential. He is wearing what looks to be a full fox around his neck and a great deal of makeup. I try not to stare, but I have to glance over when I see him “tsking” leaning over the computer monitor shaking his head while looking at his credential mugshot saying, “no, no, that won’t do, take another one, take another one.”

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Scene: Grandville Avenue amidst the crowds. I’m hurrying down Granville to make a pre-production meeting and I see a group of Canadian hockey fans wearing jerseys surrounding a fallen comrade bent over vomiting into the gutter. His buddies were all chiding him “Its just a few beers, what kind of Canadian are you anyway?” Time check? 10:30…. in the morning…

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Scene: Pan Pacific Hotel lobby: I’m heading into the elevator bank of the Pan Pacific Hotel where all the “talent” stay (on air personalities and bigshots) but I can’t get past the attendant and into the elevator bank because I don’t have a room key card to show him. I try calling Fred and Andy, but no one picks up. Suddenly Picabo Street materializes beside me. She’s on her cell phone, but doesn’t break stride, jerking a thumb towards me and saying to the attendant, “he’s with me” while she continues talking and walking. I follow her into an open elevator and push 14 to go to our producer Fred’s room, and I start to listen to her conversation. She’s smiling and animated.

“No, no, I can confirm…” “No, listen to me, I CAN confirm what you are saying but its not…”

She rolls her eyes and looks at me, a gleeful smile playing out on her face. “Yes, let me speak. Yes, I can absolutely confirm Lindsay Vonn is sleeping with her coach.

“Yes, yes it is true she went to HIS room last night after the awards ceremony. Yes, yes!”

Her eyes crinkled, and she paused, waiting for the dramatic punchline.

“He’s her HUSBAND!” Picabo cackled and could barely talk. “Seriously there’s no story there…” She winked at me and said, “Tabloids!”. As I was getting off the elevator she was still laughing.

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Scene: The Pan Pacific Hotel Lobby Restaurant. “This relay – it’s a f-ing nightmare – no one understands it.” Fred Gaudelli, our producer, was lamenting one morning before competition about the upcoming relays. As a grunt I wasn’t usually much of a participant in the dialog and was happy to be at the table, but I spoke up “What if I could draw some diagrams that showed the specific roles of each skater, and how it all works?” 10 hours of powerpoint animations later, and I was the proud father of a series of little animatics that made broadcast television after the skilled hand of Charlie Vanacor and others made them TV worthy.

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Teammates - Gabel and FlaimScene: The USA House. Most of my available hours – those not spent at the venue, watching practice, building powerpoint diagrams, doing morning TV, sleeping or riding my bike – were spent at the “USA House.” The USA House is Zeus’s gift to current and former US Olympic Athletes. Open only to current Olympic athletes and “Olympians” (once an Olympian, always an Olympian - you are never a “former Olympian”), it is a refuge for those lucky enough to pass through its doors. Every Olympics has one, but in Vancouver it was a large square building right downtown with three floors. The first floor was the USA Olympic store, the second was the bar, restaurant and big screen TV’s and the third floor, well I never made it up, but I heard it was meeting rooms. With the limited invitees, the excellent catered food and the open bar, conversations in the USA House come easy.

Each night, somewhere around midnight after the official awards ceremonies, many of the newly minted U.S. medalists for the day would make their way to the USA house for a relatively new and important ceremony – the order of Ikkos, where the medal winner would provide a medal symbolizing  the order to the supporter/coach who had helped them the most. Some gave it to a coach, some to a parent. Regardless of recipient, most nights it was an emotional ceremony, and everyone at the USA house would gather around the far end of the vast room to watch the athlete(s) provide the medal and give short speeches to the cheers of the crowd. I loved how it helped focus the athlete’s attention back away from themselves and begin the process of realization that their presence on the world stage was due to the support of many outside themselves.

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Scene: The USA House most evenings. Perhaps my fondest memories of the games are the time spent lounging in the low white leather chairs of the USA house, whiling away the evening hours with old friends, new friends and new aquaintances. Serious conversations about training, philosophy, and sport were balanced by the easy camaraderie and joking banter common to athletes around the globe. Alex, Chris, Ian, Tucker, Nick, and I were a core group and just so happened to all also be on the Colbert show http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/265287/february-24-2010/freud-rage---the-iceman-counseleth/  . Others would join the circle watching the big screen TV’s while telling stories of “the old days” or recent events. It was a safe and special place and the energy in the room, despite everyone being low on sleep, made it all the more memorable. As the elder statesman of the group, I would switch circles back and forth with the “older group” of Gabel, Blair, Wanek, Jansen, Plant and others. The cast of characters:

Chris Needham: skated on the national teams – both long track and short track for a decade, had to suffer through being my roommate in Lake Placid back in the day, but never quite made the Olympic team. Chris is very smart and has a quick wit.

Ian Baranski: like Chris, Ian skated competitively for a decade on various long track and short track teams, but never quite made the games. Ian managed to get a law degree while still skating on the national team, and we have always had a great relationship. Ian is Apolo’s roommate in Salt Lake.

Tucker Fredericks: I just got to know Tucker, but this kid is crazy funny. Apparently during the Colbert show taping, Tucker had Stephen cracking up more than once. As a long track sprinter, Tucker is very unusual being neither tall nor massive. Wicked fast though, he is.

Nick Pearson: I remember Nick as this tiny blond headed kid running around the rink with his cute little red-headed sister. Now he’s this Thor of an Olympian (yes, I’m mixing my pantheons) – 6’3”, legs like oak trees, zero percent body fat. Nick had a phenomenal finish in two Olympics that no one ever saw – 6th in Salt Lake City in both the 1500m and 1000m , and a 7th in the 1000m in Vancouver. None of his races were ever aired…

Alex Izykowski: the boy who wore my silver medal, who became the Olympic competitior with the bronze medal in Torino, who became the injured and retired Olympian who has become a very close friend. Alex has a very kind disposition and a generous soul. I spent much of my free time hanging with him.

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Scene: The USA house: I’m not a huge hockey fan, but the guy in front of me talking in an animated way clearly was. It was the night after I had had dinner with Paul Wylie, Peter Caruthers and Kristie Yamaguchi, and Bret Hedican, the man I was speaking with, was a recently retired NHL player, but those significant credentials did not gain him entrance to the USA house. Fortunately, he was also a former Olympian in 1992, and then again in 2006 for the U.S. Hockey team, and we were discussing training and talent development and we found ourselves in strong agreement in our positions on the topic and talked for the better part of an hour. At one point in the conversation, Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team wandered over and joined the discussion, seamlessly joining in as we had all already met. At one point, Mike looked around and said, “isn’t great to be here?” Bret and I nodded, and then Bret said, “you know, nobody cares how many playoff games or Stanley cups I’ve won, but when they find out I played in the Olympics!, that’s what people remember and care about. It is sort of a magic moment locked in the four year box of time.”

The next night I was talking with Bret again, and when Kristie Yamaguchi came by to say hi, I was just about to introduce her when she gave Bret a kiss. “You’ve met my husband Bret?” They had no reason to know I felt like an idiot.

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Scene: The Pacific Coloseum entrance. On Wednesday, before the fourth day of short track, I finally met Cheryl Davis, my neighbor back in West Bloomfield, Michigan and the mother of Olympian Meryl Davis. She was waiting in the rink after figure skating practice (“figs in the nomenclature of the media crew”) and that part of me that was a child years ago still recognized her. She was tiny, but still steely, with bright blue eyes that belied her size. I remembered, suddenly, being afraid of her as a kid (a feeling her son Clay, corroborated as legitimate). Perhaps I trespassed in her yard a few decades ago and was chastised, but she was all smiles and hugs now. “Meryl and Charlie are in third!” she said, “they can probably move up to silver, maybe even Gold!”

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Scene: The USA house the next night. The following evening I watched the ice dance finale sitting right next to Cheryl Davis and Mrs. White, Charlie’s mom as Meryl and Charlie skated a fantastic program to win silver. It was so exciting to share that moment with her. Then, a few hours later after a call from Cheryl, I met them at the USA house to meet Meryl and watch Meryl and Charlie provide their Ikkos award to their coach (shared by the gold medal team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. A few moments after Meryl came out of the elevator of the USA house, I finally met the little girl who had held the Olympic torch so long ago. I was full of emotions and didn’t quite know what to do or say - I was torn between a desire to be a part of it all (as Cheryl pulled me into photos) and filled with embarrassment for knowing I was just lucky to be there.

Preview, Journal #13: Final Reflections – final thoughts and memories from this amazing 3 weeks.