EXCUSE ME FOR bursting your red, white and blue bubble, but the USA will be humbled in the upcoming Summer Olympic Games track and field competition, the Games' glamor sport. Last summer's World Track and Field Championships, in which U.S. men and women netted an all-time low of nine gold medals, was no fluke; it was a warning. It's no longer enough to be American; it takes more.
More money, for instance.The financial plight of America's so-called amateur athletes is laughable, as is the whole state of (sham)amateurism. And it's beginning to take its toll, despite the vast wealth of talent in this country. The U.S. is slipping and why not? To stay in the sport, particularly during their formative years, athletes must be paupers. With the exception of a handful of superstars, they are left to their own means to find coaching, equipment, medical attention and a means of survival. So they leave the sport, or struggle to stay in it, while competing at a disadvantage internationally or at something less than their potential.
You need look no further than at Utah's own Olympic prospects. Julie Jenkins, the 1987 NCAA 800-meter champion from BYU and Plain City, surely one of the most promising middle-distance runners in the world, has moved in with her sister in tiny Moffat, Colo., to save money and to train under Coach Joe Vigil. She sleeps on a sofa sleeper, lives out of a suitcase, works at a local sporting goods store and trains. Money is tight. How tight? "I was starting to buy (only) milk and bread," she says.
Fortunately for Jenkins, Reebok, the shoe company she endorses, has begun to send her a small monthly check. Jenkins is one of the lucky ones. Shoe deals have become nearly extinct since the salad days of America's Olympics in 1984. Ask Keith Robinson, the American Fork High/BYU alumnus. All Robinson did last summer was win the silver medal in the Pan American Games decathlon. But he can't even get a free pair of shoes. Adidas has made the best offer: equipment for cost.
This is only the beginning of Robinson's troubles. Unable to find a job that will allow him the flexibility necessary to train, he works part-time jobs and supports his wife and child on less than $5,000 a year. To make matters worse, Robinson has been injured this spring, and he is unable to pay for medical attention. Luckily for him, Dr. Richard Jackson, an orthopedic surgeon in Provo, has treated him without charge (and paid his way to nationals to boot). Undaunted by his situation, Robinson still plans to train for the '92 Olympics. "That's the life of a decathlete in this country," he says with resignation.
And of hammer throwers. Russ Meldrum, another ex-BYU/Provo athlete, placed fifth in the NCAA
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championships hammer last year and was first among Americans. At age 25, his best throw of 225-31/2 is formidable, especially in an event in which athletes don't peak until their mid-30s. And yet, like Robinson, Meldrum can't get a free pair of shoes.
"There's no way I can survive throwing," says Meldrum, so he attends University of Utah medical school and throws part-time. He goes to the library in sweats, retires to a nearby field to throw during study breaks, buys dinner at 7-11 and returns to the library, where he studies until midnight. Weightlifting is out of the question. For someone living on a student loan, there is no extra money. "I've got to come up with $400 to get to nationals," he says.
Paul Henderson knows where he's coming from. Some friends raised $600 to help the former Weber State steeplechaser cover training expenses. He spent $480 of that money just to compete in a sea-level meet in Eugene, Ore., perhaps his one and only shot at meeting the Olympic trials qualifying mark. Talk about pressure. "I couldn't sleep," he says. "I didn't want to waste the money." He didn't. He qualified.
"I've put my life on hold," says Henderson, who lives in Ogden and survives partly on money his father sends him. "I have no girlfriend, no school and no job."
Inevitably, though, such single-mindedness is not always possible and some of our brightest prospects fall by the wayside. At the age of 25, Weber State's Farley Gerber not only won the 1984 NCAA steeplechase championship but did so with a prodigious time of 8:19.27. His future should have been in front of him. Instead, injuries, allergies, a growing family and job opportunities compelled him to quit. To be sure, the U.S. loses other Gerbers along the way.
At a time when school teachers are paid a pittance, no one is suggesting that the public foot the bill for these athletes. One suspects, instead, that the money is already there. What is needed is a restructuring of the current organizations that control and govern the sport (The Athletics Congress, the USOC) and the way they distribute money among the athletes. (Better yet, why not an open system of prize money?) The athletes claim too much money is given to too few athletes, the six-figure income superstars who need it the least. The money needs to be spread further across the board. A vast number of athletes also claim that the governing bodies spend far too much money on overhead, junkets and officials. In the end, the athletes should have a more direct say in how the money is spent, especially since they produce most of it to begin with.
Until that happens, American athletes are on their own. They face a disadvantage everytime they compete against the Russians and Germans, who receive a wide range of government support. Those countries would not have squandered a Farley Gerber. But no matter how poor the U.S.'s showing this summer, no one can blame the athletes. They're the ones making the sacrifices.