The Intrinsic Value of Elite Athletes

By Nathan Ikon Crumpton.       July 11th, 2013
Nathan Ikon Crumpton

Among the cynical and unimaginative members of the sporting world, there is a pernicious myth that Olympic athletes are not value adding members of society.  Instead, they are unrepentant moochers getting rich and famous by reenacting a crude form of tribal warfare and competing in irrelevant sports.  As the erroneous stereotype goes, they’re just glorified hobbyists, competing in the nebulous realm between amateurism and “real” professionals like NBA, MLB, and NFL players. And when they don’t receive expected compensation for their efforts, they get accused of greed, unpatriotic behavior, and self-entitled bitching.

By my estimate, less than 5% of Olympians and Olympic hopefuls fit this sensationalized stereotype of self-absorbed prima donnas living the life of the rich and famous. The other 95%+ of us exist in relative anonymity, struggling to make ends meet while becoming valuable members of society in myriad other ways.

Doubtlessly, we all strive to become the successful kings and queens of our respective sports; the next Michael Phelps or Lindsey Vonn, flush with sponsors and an enviable lifestyle. But most of us know full well that the likelihood of such a future is tiny, especially since most Olympic sports do not hold wide public interest except for a few minutes every four years.

But the pride of nations, the dreams of countless youth, and the inspiration of billions of people worldwide hinge on those few minutes.

And in between those few minutes, during the years of effort that go towards making them happen, untold sacrifices are made by athletes, family, and friends alike.  And while the physical and mental challenges are daunting, the financial burden is often the most difficult. For starters, US athletes receive no government funding for their Olympic endeavors. Moreover, even though the US Olympic Committee (USOC) – a Congressionally chartered non-profit organization ostensibly designed to support American athletes – received over $338 million in revenue in 2012, athlete stipends across many sports were indiscriminately cut, forcing some to apply for food stamps.

It baffles my sense of meritocratic fairness that in 2012 at least fourteen USOC executives took home over a quarter million dollars in compensation, with one nearly topping a million dollars, yet the strongest woman in America lives in poverty, or that more than half of the top-10 ranked track & field athletes earn less than $15,000 a year from their sport.  Alas, those are the topics of future articles. This article is about we elite athletes, and the intrinsic value that we add to society.

The most obvious benefit we provide is by being worthy role models to the youth of a nation, and citizens writ large. And while the economic value of being a role models is imprecise, there is little doubt that in an age when the American Medical Association declares obesity a “disease” and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention warns of an “obesity epidemic,” the nation could use more athletes as role models, not fewer.

But an athlete’s value runs much deeper than inspiring the lives of others.  By the nature of our occupation, we possess qualities that have significance far beyond the athletic arena.

I first became aware of these qualities and their social worth in college. During a career fair, prospective employers came to campus to recruit soon-to-be graduates for their respective companies.  Some of them touted the fact that they only hired Ivy League graduates, which I can only assume was to make them appear more elite. But even more intriguing was a subset of those companies – all of them boutique financial firms – which only hired Ivy League athletes.

When a track & field teammate at the time was hired by one of those firms, I asked him why his new employer only hired athletes. It was simple, he explained: in general, athletes have already proven that they are able to function efficiently on a team and have the ability to work earnestly towards a collective goal.  Athletes are instinctively competitive, more loyal to their parent institution, and more respectful of hierarchy.  They also have a tendency to work longer, harder, and more diligently at their job.  The bottom line – which tends to be all that matters in the often cutthroat world of finance – was that athletes made better employees. They gave the firm a competitive advantage and made it more money.

Naturally, qualities such as dedication, teamwork, and a Puritan work ethic can be applied in more places than the world of finance. A quick survey of my friends and teammates on the US Bobsled and Skeleton team reveals a panoply of athletes embodying these many admirable qualities.

Katie Uhlaenader comes to mind. A two-time Olympian in the sport of skeleton, she’s also a two-time World Cup overall champion, the 2012 World Champion, and one of the favorites for a medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics after finishing second during the World Cup test event there. She’s also an Olympic hopeful for the 2016 Rio Games in weightlifting. (Yet in spite of her stellar resume and her fantastic potential going into the upcoming Olympic Games, she just received a 12.5% stipend cut.) And when she’s not sliding head first on ice at over 80mph or pushing her body to the limit in the weight room, she’s working 10+ hour days on her cattle ranch in Colorado. Her labors help feed this nation.

Veronica Day, an emerging elite skeleton racer and the 2012 National Push Champion, also comes to mind. This past season, in between her training routine of sliding, lifting, sprinting, and recovery, she would drive to the home of a disabled geriatric woman to help feed, clothe, and bathe her. Veronica literally changed the diaper and sanitized a handicapped octogenarian, and I struggle to think of a task more socially meritorious than that.

Intellectual fortitude isn’t foreign to my fellow sliders either.  Ida Bernstein, a two-sport Olympic hopeful, is simultaneously pursuing her PhD in physics.  And Sam Michener is taking a hiatus from medical school and his future career of saving people’s lives to pursue his Olympic dreams.  Adam Clark, a national team bobsledder looking to compete in his first Olympics next year, has degrees in both physics and mechanical engineering. And Curt Tomasevicz, a member of the “Night Train” 4-man bobsled crew and a 2010 Olympic gold medalist, holds both a bachelors and a masters in electrical engineering as well as a minor in astronomy.

Others pull double duty by serving as military personnel in our nation’s armed forces. Chris Fogt (2010 Olympic bobsledder), Megan Henry (2012 National Champion skeletor), John Napier (2010 Olympic bobsled pilot), and Justin Olsen (“Night Train” 2010 Olympic gold medalist) are among the strong contingent of athletes also serving our country in non-spandex uniform. After the 2010 Olympics, Fogt served a one year deployment in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn as an officer in the Military Intelligence branch. And Napier spent six months deployed in Afghanistan fighting with the US Army 3-172 Infantry battalion.

None of us are household names, none of us have million dollar shoe contracts, and none of us will be showing off our living quarters on MTV Cribs.

We are your kitchen cleaners, your restaurant servers, and your nursing home attendants; your fire fighters, your web developers, and your customer service representatives.  We are your soldiers who protect you, your construction workers who build homes for you, and your farmers who provide food for you. We are the salt of the earth workers and essential contributors that this nation was built on, and cannot afford to function without. And we do it all with unparalleled work ethic, uncommon devotion, and all for the fleeting opportunity to become ambassadors for our country on the world’s biggest stage.

And we need your support.

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Nathan Ikon Crumpton graduated cum laude from Princeton University, where he was a four-year Division I and All-Ivy track & field athlete. He is now an Olympic development athlete with the US Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and has represented the USA in international races in both disciplines. He also served in a volunteer capacity on the USOC-AAC’s Task Force on Governance and Resource Allocation. He can be contacted through his personal website  www.NathanIkonCrumpton.com

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