U.S. Olympian Dara Torres
Wong Maye-E AP

The Hidden Cost of Olympic Medals

August 24, 2008 04:15 PM
by Shannon Firth
Expensive training and equipment helps athletes from wealthier countries win more medals than those less affluent. Can anything help make up the difference?
Announcers, journalists, athletes and the International Olympics Committee talk a lot about “creating a level playing field” at the Olympics. Most often they spotlight performance-enhancing drugs, but less attention is given to a greater effect on Olympic success—the disparity of wealth between competing countries.

When it comes to the Olympics, it’s clear that wealthier nations and athletes have an advantage over developing ones. For those without hefty sponsorship plans, paying for coaches, physical therapy, travel, accommodations and equipment can be a tremendous burden. The new Speedo LZR swimsuit, designed with help from NASA, costs $550 and, according to Radio Netherlands, “can only be worn six times before the fabric loses its power.” Kenyan swimmer David Mawande, who would like to compete in the next Olympics, said the suit’s cost is out of his reach. Mawande calls the suit a “form of technological doping.”

In the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the Zaire women’s basketball team lost by 60 points to an American team that was hard to compete with in more ways than one. Zaire coach Mongamaluku Mozingo told The New York Times that his team’s progress was largely dependent on its finances. “We have excellent players,” he said, but “We do not have indoor courts. … So our players train outside. They train in the heat. They train in the sun. It’s an open field. You have two posts, and kids are playing there.” With the price of a basketball equal to two months’ salary, Zaire had only one ball for training. Uniforms and airfare to Atlanta were donated by NBA player Dikembe Mutombo.

Now consider the training regimen of American swimmer Dara Torres, who won two silver medals in Beijing. The New York Times reports in a different article, “With a head coach, a sprint coach, two stretchers, two masseuses, a chiropractor and a nanny, she spent at least $100,000 a year preparing for these Olympics.” Stretching coach Bob Cooley said that Torres “gets stretched and mashed on for 8 hours everyday.”

Torres’s financial situation and training time also surpasses that of runner Tyler Christopher, the Canadian World Indoor champion, who, when he started his training, slept on friends’ floors, worked a handful of jobs at odd hours, and took his meals from government bins designated for the homeless. The Canadian government helps support some Olympic hopefuls, but even those who manage to qualify for the $18,000 stipends have trouble paying their bills.

Robert McLeman from Canadian newspaper The Record, in an attempt to compare Canada’s progress at the Olympics relative to its financial support, created a formula for predicting the number of medals each country would receive if the money spent supporting athletes and their training were evenly distributed by population. In this make-believe realm, after one week’s worth of games, China would have 185 medals, Canada 4 or 5, India 157, and the United States 42. In actuality, China had 40 medals, Canada had 0, India had 1, and the Americans had 44. McLeman lamented, “But of course, we live in the ‘real world,’ where resources are not equally distributed, and where Australians, Europeans and North Americans have the financial means to ensure they have a greater chance of Olympic glory than do the majority of the world’s population.”

Opinion & Analysis: Bridging the ‘Olympic divide’

Noting the expense of swimsuits, aerodynamic helmets, and a single bicycle wheel, which can cost between $5,000 and $6,000, sports ethicist Greg Dale of Duke University and Julian Savulescu of Oxford University talked with Radio Netherlands about “leveling the playing field” at the Olympics. Dale said, “I think the Olympic idea is to allow people to test their bodies against other athletes. It shouldn’t be, in my mind, about who has the best equipment. It should be who trains the best.” Julian Savulescu of Oxford University argued, “You can’t really compete in most of the events in the Olympics unless you have very sophisticated training facilities, and expensive technology. … That’s just the way the world is.”

So how do poorer nations bridge the gap?

Canadian middle-distance runner Gary Reede’s coach, Wynn Gmitroski, told a reporter from the CBC, “If they would take the health-care budget and take one per cent and put it into prevention through sport and exercise, our problems would be solved. But that doesn’t buy votes for the politicians.”

An editorial posted on TwoSen, a Malaysian blog, outlined another solution: instead of offering financial grants to poorer countries, which has proved ineffective, the IOC should create Olympics training academies and offer coaching from international experts.

Impoverished athletes aren’t the only one pining for fairness. Australian columnist Dane Barclay writes, “if the nation is to spend $3 million in one particular sporting sector then surely, as advocates of fairness in sport, we want our opponents to have access to the same funding or technology to make victory all the more satisfying.”

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