Speedskating still struggles to get noticed
MILWAUKEE -- They work part-time jobs. They scrimp to pay the bills. Some even have filed for food stamps to make sure they get enough to eat.
Such is life for many U.S. speedskaters.
Is that any way to treat a sport that is responsible for more of this country's Winter Olympic medals than any other?
"We're out of sight, out of mind," said Derek Parra, a former gold medalist who now coaches the U.S. all-around team. "Every four years, we're one of the biggest sports at the Olympic Games. People see it. But in between those four years, no one sees it."
Speedskating has produced some of the most iconic figures in U.S. Olympic history, from Eric Heiden and Dan Jansen to Sheila Young and Bonnie Blair. At the last three Winter Games, speedskaters were chosen to carry the American flag at the opening ceremonies. In all, Americans have claimed 75 medals -- 32 of them gold -- on the traditional long track oval and the wild-and-wooly short track rink.
Like many Olympic sports, speedskating struggles to get noticed once the flame is extinguished. Now, U.S. speedskating faces an even more daunting challenge heading into Vancouver. When the Dutch bank DSB declared bankruptcy last week, U.S. Speedskating suddenly found itself trying to make do without $300,000 -- its largest annual cash sponsorship.
Officials say it shouldn't have any impact on the Olympic team, but the belt-tightening has already begun.
"We don't even know if we'll be able to finish the season. We don't know if we'll be able to send people to events after the games," Parra said. "We're struggling. I don't know if I'll have a paycheck until the end of the year."
Catherine Raney, who is attempting to make her fourth Olympic team and has never won an Olympic medal, receives a $1,000 monthly stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee and $750 -- the maximum monthly payout -- from U.S. Speedskating. That comes out to $21,000 a year -- pocket change for multimillionaire athletes such as LeBron James or Alex Rodriguez, but actually not too bad for a speedskater.
Plus, Raney got married about a year ago.
"Now I've got health insurance," she said, breaking into a big smile. "Holla!"
Then consider Jilleanne Rookard, one of the biggest surprises of the recent U.S. speedskating trials and in line to skate as many as five events at Vancouver. She didn't make the national team a year ago while caring for her ailing mother, so she didn't qualify for any stipends. She rents a room from another speedskater, works 20 hours a week at a Milwaukee roller skating rink and recently needed a $1,000 donation from a local club just to pay her bills.
"There's been times when I've had $30 in my bank account," Rookard said.
It could get worse after the Olympics. Even before DSB went out of business, U.S. Speedskating already was planning to suspend its athlete stipends at the end of March, giving the organization a chance to reassess finances and decide how much it could afford to dole out at the start of the new fiscal year June 1.
"After March, everything shuts down," said Robert Crowley, the executive director of U.S. Speedskating. "We told the athletes, 'This is where it's going to end, so budget yourself accordingly.' We've tried to be real upfront and fair with them."
Officials are scrambling to line up new sponsors, but that's especially tough given the shaky state of the global economy. Besides, few American companies were willing to back speedskating even when times were good.
"We're the most successful winter sport, and we can't get a sponsor," Raney said. "It's sad."
Speedskaters certainly know about struggle. All go into the sport with their eyes wide open, knowing there's very little chance for an American to make a decent living unless they reach the very top. Most believe Shani Davis, Chad Hedrick and short track star Apolo Anton Ohno are the only ones making any real money, and Ohno's marketing appeal probably has as much to do with winning "Dancing With The Stars" as his five Olympic medals.
"I absolutely worry about the future of this sport," said Casey FitzRandolph, a retired Olympian who won gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. "Any time you have such a small number of not only athletes but dedicated fans, it's going to teeter."
U.S. Speedskating has been trying for years to expand its reach, but there are only 2,500 registered athletes in a country of more than 300 million and seemingly little chance of greatly expanding those minuscule numbers. The inline skating boom of the 1990s was a major boost to the program, producing crossover medalists such as Hedrick, Parra, Jennifer Rodriguez and Joey Cheek. But inline's popularity has waned in this country, shrinking the talent pool of potentially top-level skaters who perhaps could make the switch from wheels to ice.
The business of speedskating is another major challenge. Most Americans just aren't familiar with the sport -- there are only two indoor ovals in the U.S. -- which makes it difficult to persuade a television network that it's worth showing. Without much media coverage, American companies are reluctant to dole out sponsorship dollars. Plus, the skaters wear hoods, goggles and similar-looking skinsuits, which makes it hard to distinguish one from the other when they're competing.
"Boy, that's the $10,000 question if anyone can figure that out," said Heiden, who won five gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
Speedskating, like many industries in this economic downturn, probably will have to make do with less for the next few years. The athletes might have to pick up some of their travel expenses, or get by during the summer without financial support. How much that will hurt the program in the long run is open to debate.
"I hate to sound like an old guy, but they're going to have to go through a little bit of what we went through," said Jansen, who retired after winning a memorable gold medal at Lillehammer in 1994. "It's gotten better over the years. It's hard to see it possibly taking a step backward. That would be bad."
But Blair, who won five golds and a bronze during her brilliant Olympic career and a longtime board member of U.S. Speedskating, isn't quite as worried.
"When you look at what the budget is and what the skaters are going through, they've got a lot compared to what we had," she said. "If you have to step back a little bit, it can still be done. You just have to get in the right mind-frame and hope things will kick in, turn around and get better."
Heiden, too, believes speedskating will endure in the U.S.
It always has.
"Speedskating has been around a long time," he said. "It's stood the test of time."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index