Program Offers Support for Athletes : Jobs for U.S. Olympic Hopefuls

Times Staff Writer

Joe Story will leave his job at the Los Angeles office of Price Waterhouse for two weeks next month to train for and play in a team handball competition. But the accounting company won’t dock the amateur athlete’s pay, thanks to a unique partnership between the two.

Story, 33, and Price Waterhouse are participants in a nationwide program designed to provide employment and career opportunities for athletes while they train for a slot on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

The Olympic Job Opportunities Program, administered by the U.S. Olympic Committee out of Colorado Springs, Colo., helps to place athletes in full-time jobs with flexible schedules that allow time off with pay for training.

Since the program began in 1977, more than 150 corporations have employed about 256 athletes. The program is administered in four-year cycles between Olympic Games. So far into the current cycle, 10 companies, including Price Waterhouse and American Express, are employing 18 athletes.


The program was started by Canteen Corp. of Chicago to enable amateur athletes to live comfortably while pursuing their sports. U.S. employers are often reluctant to hire Olympic hopefuls because of their frequent absences for training and competition.

Craig Wilson, a 1984 silver medalist with the U.S. water polo team, says he had trouble finding a steady job before the Games. Before he was hired for a management training program at the Century City-based insurance brokerage of Johnson & Higgins in 1983, he said, “my biggest entertainment was playing Pac-Man, and it was even hard then to find a quarter to play.”

Wilson noted that the ability of U.S. athletes to train full time as the Games draw close is necessary “to be competitive in a global environment.” In many countries, athletes are fully supported by their governments as they train for major international competitions.

Price Waterhouse’s Los Angeles office is spearheading a move to generate interest and employment opportunities among large and mid-size Southern California firms. Fred Clayton, senior manager and director of the firm’s human resource consulting group, said the firm has sent materials on the program to about 900 Southern California companies.


“What we hope to do is literally develop a database of companies who have expressed interest in the program who can tell us what their specific needs are in terms of types of jobs they would like to fill,” Clayton said. “We would keep a database of athletes who have selected Southern California as a base where they want to live and train.”

Jeff Yarema, chairman of the Olympic Job Opportunity Program for California and a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, said: “The program has a unique capability because of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee network already in place here.”

He says the network is helping to develop an “excellent foundation” for a local jobs programs among banks, hotels, financial-services institutions, law firms and others.

California apparently is a popular base for the athletes. Sheryl Abbot, the Olympic job program coordinator in Colorado Springs, said a U.S. Olympic Committee study of athletes in the job program from 1980 to 1984 showed that 30% were employed in the state. She says that 55% of the athletes looking for jobs want to work in California and that 40% of the 1984 team claimed California as their residence.


Athletes’ applications to the committee in Colorado Springs are forwarded to their respective sports federations, which determine whether the applicant is a potential candidate for the 1988 Olympic team.

$17,800 Salary

If accepted, an applicant is placed with a company offering a job that comes as close as possible to matching the athlete’s career goals.

Abbot says about 95% of the applicants have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in engineering, economics, marketing and business. The committee’s survey indicated that the nationwide salary of those who participated in the job program between 1980 and 1984 was $17,800 plus benefits.


Each athlete’s salaries and terms are negotiated individually.

Story, a member of the 1984 U.S. team handball team, hopes to compete again in 1988 in Seoul. A graduate of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., he taught school before getting handball fever. In 1982 he joined the U.S. national handball team in New Brunswick, N.J., commuting two hours each day to and from Manhattan to work as an information assistant at the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co. Then he commuted another two hours to and from the training site.

As the Games drew near last year, Wilson of Johnson & Higgins said, he typically worked about 25 hours a week, arriving at 8 a.m. and leaving at 2 p.m. to train. “A month prior to the Olympics, I wasn’t around much,” he said.

The Olympic Committee’s survey showed that athletes in the job program spent an average of about 2 1/2 months away from the job in the year preceding the Games.


For many participants, the job opportunities have blossomed into careers. Half of the 256 athletes placed by the program are still working with the original employer.

Wilson, for example, who ends his management trainee program at Johnson & Higgins this month, plans to continue with the company, marketing software products now that his Olympic goals have been fulfilled.