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 #2: The World’s Biggest Party

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Last week I received my NBC credentials in the mail. More than airplane tickets, the hotel room, the food at the commissary, the salary or per diem, these two laminated plastic cards are the primary perk for being a part of the NBC Olympic team. With these two cards I will be able to enter virtually any event at the Olympics and get down to the “mixed zone” where only athletes and press are allowed. Sadly opening ceremonies are the one even where even these credentials won’t work. .

The Olympics, for most, are a television event. People from around the world tune in to watch their favorite sport and watch the unfolding drama. Part of the delight of watching is the grand backdrop, the once-in-four-years stories of success, and those “agony of defeat” episodes as well.
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A series of traditions help to create the spectacle: the running of the torch, the fanfare and fireworks of the opening ceremonies, the parade of nations and, finally, the lighting of the torch. (See pictures attached from the Torino Olympics opening ceremonies.)

But being there is different. The Olympics are the single biggest party in the world. For 17 days, a few million people, all in a good mood, all with a love of sport, walk around in a perpetual state of delight – wide eyes taking in the spectacle of a city transformed – many with family or friends, or the friend of a friend taking part in the events. I would expect that downtown Vancouver will be much like Torino was four years ago – throngs of people in hats and scarves pouring in and out of cafes and restaurants, bars and shops, camera crews and temporary broadcast pods, and the occasional brightly colored warmup suit of an athlete strolling casually along with everyone else.

 Most people are nervous to speak to the athletes, but for the most part, these fears are unwarranted. 99.99% of these athletes have toiled in anonymity for years, if not decades. To be recognized by strangers for their investment with few interested questions and a request for a snapshot can make an athlete’s day – and indeed in a half hour stroll you will likely see a dozen or more of these spontaneous group shots taking place, brightly suited athletes surrounded by a huddle of smiling strangers blocking pedestrian traffic to complete the picture. The atmosphere is even more enchanting in the evening. Even as the temperatures drop, a new level of interpersonal warmth is created.

In Torino, incredibly colorful and complex lighting displays arched over the streets downtown lighting the vapors of breath and laughter in the cold winter air. The question, “where are you from,” usually with an accent is more than a gesture of politeness – it is an invitation to a true conversation, one that often turns into an invitation – to a reception, an event, or to a party.  Some may consider the Olympics a frivolous enterprise – these are “games” after all. World hunger isn’t being solved, no mines or nuclear warheads are being deactivated, and despite efforts to become more “green” there is likely a negative net contribution to global warming. That said, consider world ills – world “weaknesses” as it were. Perhaps as a society, as a world culture, we are guilty of much of the same negative bias and focus as we are as teams and individuals. We spend our time and energies on fixing what is wrong rather than celebrating and adding to what is right.

The Olympics are ultimately a celebration of strengths – a study in what is right vs. a focus on what is wrong. The world needs its cancer seminars, and violence prevention workshops, but in the end perhaps what it needs most is a positive focus for its energies. Perhaps the world needs more of these games, a bigger focus on what is right in the world. For this we thank the Greeks of nearly 3000 years ago who fed the world this amazing enterprise where the celebration of excellence triumphs again and again. 

 

Preview of Vancouver #3: Meet the athletes – short track and long track team members