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Action Replay: Entering the Straight

Lolo Jones stirred things up a month or two ago. She revealed that seven months as a top US bobsleigh competitor had earned her just over $740.

This annoyed quite a lot of people, mostly other bobsledders (to use the American term for the sport and its athletes). This was far more than most of them earned, they pointed out. Jones’ statement that ‘I’m going to be a little late on my rent’ was seen as particularly offensive, since she is also an international hurdler who receives a lot of money in sponsorships, from Red Bull, for instance. In addition, she’s a devout Christian, but that doesn’t stop her from trading on her good looks for endorsements and pin-up photos.

Behind all this froth are some real issues about how people get to be top athletes and how much financial sacrifice is needed for this. American sportspeople do not receive central government funding, so would-be stars often have to rely on that favourite source of support, their parents. There are stories of people losing their homes or going bankrupt because they tried to pay for their kids’ training. Just as having unpaid interns in large companies more or less limits such posts to offspring of the rich, so something similar might be said of young athletes.

The body UK Sport has a World Class Performance Programme that provides coaches and scientific support, as well as personal awards that contribute to athletes’ living costs; it is backed by the government and the National Lottery. But ‘with a shifting economic environment, it has become increasingly necessary to look towards the commercial sector to provide an additional income stream’ (www.uksport.gov.uk).

Andy Murray, the new national hero, benefited from his mum being a professional tennis coach. Then in 2006 the Lawn Tennis Association paid Brad Gilbert half a million quid to coach him. So there’s plenty of funding for some.

It also helps to be in a high-profile sport, rather than one such as bobsleigh or judo, say. Or an unsuccessful one, with sports such as volleyball losing funding after a poor display in last year’s Olympics. To them that hath shall be given ...