American business finds way to boost Olympic athletes

Olympic sculling hopeful Virginia Gilder is bridging the gap between work and working out. She's the top woman rower in the United States. She's also a full-time, salaried computer programmer. Although she alternates between the world of high-tech electronics and the strip of calm that winds through Boston's urban clamor, the Charles River, she really has not had to make the tough choice between career and sport that often has been the bottom line for America's Olympic athletes.

And therein lies a story of collaboration between individuals and corporations that takes on special meaning as the nation prepares for the 1984 Olympic Games.

American businesses, eager to tap the motivation of Olympic-level athletes, are putting them to work in full-paying professional positions with schedules to fit around their training and competition needs. The Olympic Job Opportunities Program (OJOP), which employs more than 100 athletes and has another 100 waiting for jobs, is private enterprise's answer to the advantage foreign athletes are said to have when their governments subsidize their living expenses.

Every morning Ms. Gilder pushes her 15-foot, featherweight scull off from Harvard University's Weld Boat House on the Charles. She hunches and slides in quiet rhythm through the water, using winglike oars as levers to brace against as she pushes the boat past them, backward, with her legs.

It's a graceful process that is uninterrupted by concerns about her job. She practices for a couple of hours every weekday morning (three or more hours on weekends, in addition to ''stadiums'' - running up and down the nearby Harvard Stadium steps 25 times), and she doesn't have to worry about making it to work at Management Decision Systems precisely on time.

Last week she left work briefly for a singles and doubles rowing competition in the Midwest. And she'll leave shortly for six weeks of training at the US Olympic training camp in Colorado. But she'll return to work and full-salary paychecks as if she hadn't left.

The job program was started in the late 1970s to ease the burden of financial responsibility for he nonsubsidized American athletes, explains Sheryl Abbot, who runs the OJOP for the US Olympic Committee.

''We're looking for jobs they can continue with, because all of a sudden when their competition is over, they don't know what to do,'' after spending most of their lives devoted to a sport, Ms. Abbot says.

''People have to make the decision to train or have a career, and that's not good,'' Ms. Gilder says. ''Athletes as a group are fairly intelligent and motivated and know what it means to have to work and get somewhere, and all that energy is lost because you can only pour it into your sport.'' She adds that ''hard work'' makes athletic accomplishments ''mean more'' and, while some may disagree, she dislikes the idea of subsidies.

The OJOP is not a handout for athletes, stresses Gordon Hill, a recruitment manager for First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles, which has hired 18 Olympic hopefuls sent by the US Olympic Committee. Like other management trainees, he explains, only ''1 or 2 out of 9 interviewed are hired.

''The benefit for them is that they get a little bit of a competitive edge. It eliminates that concern of where the next paycheck is coming from. We require only 20 to 36 hours of work a week, and we've given them something to put on a resume,'' he says.

In turn, the company gets a good reputation, morale gets a boost, and, he says, ''Anyone as motivated . . . as an Olympic athlete has to be will be an outstanding employee.''

There are 718 positions to fill on the summer and winter teams, and the program employs only a fraction of that number right now. But other aid programs include US Olympic Committee's camps that put athletes up for free at training facilities in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Lake Placid, N.Y. An ''Olympic Gold'' program offers cash for training expenses to athletes who place in the top eight in international competition.

''The job program is the route to take,'' concludes Radcliffe rowing coach Lisa Stone, who also coaches Ms. Gilder. Comparing US rowers to those subsidized in socialist countries, she says US women have consistently ranked among the best in the world. But she says the jobs program is a good way for an athlete to finance necessary travel and ensures a career, which is essential for an athlete to maintain ''the survival instinct.''

Ironically, it took a job to motivate Ginny Gilder to start rowing again after she quit in disgust after training for the 1980 Olympics, from which Americans were barred. ''I was really depressed, being unemployed,'' she explains. ''And once I started working again, it made sense to start rowing again.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.