Commentary

Haves and have-nots share same stage

Updated: February 3, 2010, 5:10 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

When the U.S. Olympic team marches into the opening ceremony next week in Vancouver, American athletes will have the same starting point and will seek glories enveloped by the comforting fabric of Old Glory.

They will be one, will be perceived as one, will win and lose as one, all aligned with the Olympic spirit, as it should be.

But the road to the Olympics is a different story.

In class or resources, equipment or sponsorship, the U.S. Olympic delegation has its millionaire hockey players, its professional skiers with million-dollar endorsement deals and snowboarders with video games named after them walking alongside its debt-ridden and anonymous-yet-world-class lugers and biathletes. It resembles the fickle and disparate economic divisions of America itself.

[+] EnlargeShaun White
Chris Polk/FilmMagicShaun White's off-the-halfpipe celebrity has led to lucrative endorsement deals, including his Ubisoft video game.

"I wish I was in their shoes"

Today's Olympic dynamic is at best complicated. Questions of fairness and competition have collided with economics, and the old narrative of the plucky American amateur persevering on the world stage still exists, but it now shares the podium with big money, big advertising and big-name stars that have changed the face of the Games.

Leading up to the Olympics, few U.S. Olympians draw the same paycheck. Few U.S. Olympic athletes, compared to their world-class counterparts in the American professional leagues, live among the gilded, in the top tax brackets.

Ryan Miller, one of the two goaltenders on the U.S. men's hockey team, earns $6.25 million a season in the NHL. Ashley Bengt-Walden, a key member of the women's luge team, works at a roadside bar a half-mile from the USA Luge training facility in Lake Placid, N.Y. When she's not training, biathlete Laura Spector lives with her parents in western Massachusetts.

Some athletes are cognizant of the financial disparities.

"I'm not going to name names, but I was talking to this particular hockey player, who had won the Stanley Cup the previous year, and I was talking about how exciting it was going to be to compete in the Olympics," said American luger Tony Benshoof. "I asked him which he thought was more important, and he said the Stanley Cup was 10 times more important than winning a gold medal. And I remember thinking to myself 'that summed it up right there.'

"These guys are in a whole different league, and god bless them. I wish I was in their shoes," Benshoof said. "But for most athletes in most sports who aren't professionals and aren't making millions, the Olympics are the biggest thing they'll ever experience."

The professionals straddle the lines of sheepish humility (even a form of embarrassment because they earn so much), professional and national pride, and oftentimes defensiveness.

"We make a lot of money in our sport, but that doesn't mean we don't want to represent our country or take it lightly," said Los Angeles Kings right winger Dustin Brown, who is in the midst of a six-year, $19 million contract and won a bronze medal for Team USA in the 2004 World Championships in Prague as a 20-year-old. "We play like everyone else plays in their sport, to win a gold medal."

The best versus the spirit

The money has always been secondary to the central conflict that has plagued the United States Olympic Committee for decades, from the days when Olympic teams were comprised completely of amateurs competing against older, better organized professionals from the Soviet bloc countries to the infamous 1988 Games when the U.S. men's basketball team did not play in the gold-medal game for the first time, earning a bronze at the Summer Games in Seoul, Korea. The response was sharp and definite: America was at a competitive disadvantage not playing its best when the rest of the world was. That had to change.

Though the Americans had lost only two games in the history of Olympic play, the famous Dream Team of Magic and Larry, Michael and Charles Barkley arrived in Barcelona for the 1992 Games, opening the door for dramatic change. Active NHL players began participating in the Olympics at the 1998 Nagano Games after the league agreed to shut down its sport for two weeks so players could compete in the Games.

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Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty ImagesLindsey Vonn is being marketed as the athlete of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

For some athletes, the arrival of the millionaires was a welcome signal that America had finally gotten into the act, that its best were competing for Olympic gold against the best in the world, instead of the little-engine-that-could narrative that dominated the USA clashes against the Soviet and Eastern Bloc powers.

Equally as important is the star power the professionals bring to the Olympics. Lindsey Vonn is the face of her sport. American hockey players, as well as Russia's Alex Ovechkin and Canada's Sidney Crosby, infuse the game with a marquee quality that gives the Games vitality. Vonn intimated the notion that while the idea of amateurs chasing their dreams is a nostalgic, homespun one, perhaps the Games have come too far to go back.

"We're all professionals on the World Cup, but it's a difference of level. Everyone wants the best players. It should be the best players playing for each nation," said skiing favorite Vonn, who doesn't earn what pro athletes do in American team sports, but through endorsements is one of the richer athletes on the U.S. Olympic team. "As far as money goes, it's always tough as an athlete to see other sports making a ton of money, but at the same time, everyone works for their money and we're having a great time doing what we do."

Thus, the playing field was finally level. The money was an unfortunate given, but the point of the policy change -- to relinquish the historical disadvantages American teams had faced for years during the Cold War -- had been emphatically made.

"I'm totally on Lindsey's side. If you're going to watch, I want to watch the best," said skier and first-time Olympian Leanne Smith. "I want to see the highest-level athletes representing. They get to represent their country and have one common goal. They get to make millions of dollars. They're the best, and they should still have the chance to represent their country."

The United States no longer found itself at as steep a competitive disadvantage, but an unintended consequence was the enormous gap in wealth between athletes. Professional skiers like Vonn and Bode Miller, and new Olympic sport stars, such as snowboarder Shaun White, enjoy lucrative endorsement deals. Sports business journals estimate White earns more than $1 million per year in combined endorsements.

White, who won a gold medal at the 2006 Torino Games, is an unquestioned Madison Avenue star. He has his own video game with Ubisoft, and endorsement deals with snowboard and equipment manufacturer Burton, Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Target, Oakley and Hewlett-Packard.

Vonn, meanwhile, is already being touted as the face of the Vancouver Games, which creates the obvious pressure to perform but also produces endorsement and economic opportunities that had previously not been available.

NBC, the American broadcast rights holder of the Games, has placed Vonn at the center of its marketing run-up to Vancouver. Her striking looks, her place at the top of the world rankings and her slogan (her group refers to itself as "Vonntourage") all put Vonn in a lucrative position. The apparel company Under Armour has had an endorsement deal with Vonn for the past four years. The New York Daily News reported last week that the Swiss luxury watch company Rolex recently signed her to an endorsement deal.

"The bottom line is, it is frustrating. The Olympics are difficult for everyone. It's not just the hockey players. It's the figure skaters, and some of the skiers. These guys are making millions of dollars. They've got an entourage. It's a whole other world," Benshoof said with a booming laugh. "I wish I were a part of it, but I do my own thing."

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Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesNHL players like Team USA's Brian Rafalski make millions before even being named to an Olympic team.

The money Games

Individual stars, like figure skater Johnny Weir, Vonn or White, can use the Olympics as a springboard. Whether it is appearing on a box of Wheaties or scoring a seven-figure endorsement deal, victory equals opportunity.

Still, whether it is resentment or resignation to the realities of these stars' existence, some Olympians accept the market forces at work.

"It's not football and basketball, so it's hard to get noticed," said American luger Erin Hamlin. "Do you feel it? Yes, that you have to perform consistently at a high level in order to maintain your funding, and there are athletes in our delegation who earn $10 million a year. You have to be aware of it. How could you not?

"I think those are the most spectator-friendly sports and that's a big factor. When you watch a luge race and you stand on the track, you see them for a quarter of a second. They go by you and you watch the rest, hopefully on the JumboTron," Hamlin said. "I can understand why it hasn't gained as much as football and basketball. There are only two tracks in North America. Anyone can build a baseball diamond. What we do is a little more unique. I'm not in it for the superstardom, anyway. I love this sport.

"Once you're on a national team for luge, you're fully funded, so it's not like you're going out of pocket to pay for our travel or our equipment," Hamlin added. "But it's true. In the summer, you have to get a part-time job. I used to work at a jewelry store."

The millionaires have their problems, too. The NHL and the NHL Players' Association have not yet determined whether the league will continue to allow NHL players to participate in the Olympics, which, while a noble event, gets in the way of business.

"Personally, I think it will be a sticking point right up until the next Olympics. It will be a battle," Miller said. "I know the league doesn't want to keep shutting the game down and risk players getting hurt. In a way, we're a traveling circus, and they tell us when we're going to play and where. You hope it's not out of our control. It can't be all about the Stanley Cup only. It represents the toughest championship to win. Maybe it's the hardest trophy to win, but that's not the only way to represent hockey."

Since 1998, the league has shut down for two weeks for the Games in Japan, Salt Lake City and Torino. But if the league doesn't continue its participation for 2014 and beyond, it would effectively leave the millionaire quotient of the Winter Olympics to the endorsement-heavy skiers and snowboarders and rob its athletes of the chance to fulfill their desire to play for their country.

Inside, the tension continues between the haves and have-nots.

"Part of me really hates the fact that there are professionals when I know we should take some collegiate-level players and train them for four years and they could be just as competitive as some of these pros we put together at the last minute," Benshoof said. "And it would be more of a dream to them."

Miller believes the big-salary players are often caught between the business of their sport and the disparities between the hockey players and their fellow Olympic athletes.

"You want to represent your country, but you also have to satisfy your employer. It's tough for the average fan to understand," Miller said. "They'd say, 'Why wouldn't they?' Well, I have a contract. This guy gets to tell me what to do. I can't go parasailing. I can't go paragliding. I can't go skiing. I can't drive a motorcycle. Not going to do any of those things. If they don't want me to play in this, they'll take away my livelihood, and they'll just say, 'You're making a million dollars.'

"But this is huge for me. It isn't always about money," Miller said. "Everybody wants their moment."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.