Olympic Games Showcase Amateur Athletes

The upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing will feature over 300 sporting events. While many events like swimming and basketball are dominated by professional athletes, the games still showcase amateur athletes. These competitors will probably never become rich or famous. They must balance work and training, and they struggle to pay for travel and other expenses. Still they persist for the chance to pursue the Olympic dream. The public identifies with these scrappy idealists. VOA's Brian Padden has the story, with addtional reporting by Scott Bobb in Johannesburg, Rory Byrne in Phnom Penh, and Suli Yi in Washington. (Part 4 of 5)

South Africa's Marlon August is close to achieving his life-long dream to compete in the Olympics. "The best would be to get a medal at the Olympics," said August.

He recently qualified for his country's Olympic Judo team. To achieve that, he trained, every day, before and after work as an office assistant. He says his employer has supported his dream. "I work for my mother, who is very understanding," said August. "She has known my dreams since I was very young, so she supports me. She pays me enough just to pay my bills. The rest I do by myself."

Steve Roush is chief of sports performance with the U.S. Olympic Committee. He has been involved with the Olympics for over 20 years. He says he sees ordinary people, time and again, dedicating their lives to winning a place on an Olympic team.  

"I think it's the purity of the Olympics that changes people's mindset," he said. "I also think there is a thing that I refer to as Olympic fever. And when you catch that, it's very hard to do anything but pursue it."

But Olympic fever is not always enough. Cambodian marathon runner Hem Bun Ping receives some government support, approximately $30 a month. But he says he cannot afford the diet he needs to compete against professional athletes.

"I think that I cannot beat the athletes from the other countries," he said. "It's like comparing the sky and the earth, because we lack everything we need. But I will try my best. I don't think I will beat everybody else, but at least I hope to beat my personal best time."

American Olympic hopeful Sarah Trowbridge is more optimistic. In the early mornings, she and other top American rowers can be found rowing on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. They train there with U.S. national team coach Matt Madigan. "[The] Potomac Boat Club is one of the best, kind of [a] feeder program onto the national team," said Trowbridge. "They have really strong programs, coaches, a lot of good girls, so it's a really a good place to be if you are trying to make the national team."

Many boat club members support themselves by working for a high-tech mapping company. The head of the company, Sean Gorman, is a one-time national rowing champion. He offers the rowers flexible hours so they can train. Gorman says employing these Olympic hopefuls is a good business decision. "We found the same characteristics that make people successful in rowing at a high level also make them great employees," he said.

Roush says while the inclusion of professional athletes has not hurt the Olympic games, the general public still favors those who are sacrificing so much - over the professionals.

"They don't embrace them as they do the canoe kayaker who is making $12,000 a year, and that's all they are making, yet they are able to pay for their training expenses, be able to travel world-wide, raise a family," said Roush. "People just identify with them and feel for them and I think get behind and support them."

Win or lose, Roush says these amateur athletes, when they compete in Beijing, will inspire a new generation of Olympic hopefuls, going for the gold. 


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