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The right way to fund professional athletes

I’ve written here before about the yawning gap between the life of the NCAA athlete, whose travel, race entries, uniforms, coaching, and (to some extent) shoes are paid for by their athletic department, and that of the professional athlete, where those things are paid for by sponsors. In between is this twilight world of “Olympic hopefuls” trying to find their way from the first to the second, trying to string together rent, health insurance, and training time until that hoped-for breakthrough that brings the sponsors knocking.

I believe anyone who wants to make a big difference in athletics in this country should be focusing their attention right there, in the gap between college athletics and the professional big time, and in fact that’s just where programs like the Hansons-Brooks Olympic Development Program, ZAP Fitness, and the RRCA’s “Roads Scholarship” program have been focused for years. (And those programs are making a difference.)

It’s statistics, really. It’s cool that Deena Kastor broke Joan Samuelson’s record and ran sub-2:20, but when the next-fastest American marathoner, now debutante Kara Goucher, is at 2:25, and the next bunch around 2:30, well, Kastor’s record looks pretty safe. You expect the record-setters and world medalists to be outliers, of course, but the fewer standard deviations they are from the mean, the more often you find world-class outliers.

Put in simpler terms, the more 2:30 marathoners you have, the more 2:28 marathoners you find. The more 2:28s there are, the more likely we are to find several 2:25s. And several 2:25s makes it more likely that someone will pop a 2:22 somewhere… or a 2:19. The same is true for men, with different numbers… and in fact it’s true for every event, and that’s why there’s more depth in the U.S. Olympic Trials than in the Olympics for many sprint and hurdle events.

USATF (or, more specifically, the USA Track & Field Foundation) is going the right direction on this, giving grants to athletes they call “emerging elite” athletes. In recent weeks they’ve announced their Elite Athlete Development Grants and U.S. Distance Project Athlete Grants (targeting the distances as an event group where Americans have been competitive in the past, but aren’t now). They’re a great idea and a step in the right direction. Now if only the USATFF was so well-funded that these grants came close to approximating the state support athletes get in other countries (or at least leveled out the cost of living and training between American and East African athletes).

It’s a low-profile program next to the ones I mentioned above, but it’s already seen some significant success: Stephanie Brown Trafton, who won the first USA athletics gold medal of the 2008 Olympics, in the women’s discus, received Elite Athlete Development grants in 2007 and 2008.

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