As Games begin, so does new era Influx of professional athletes knocks amateurs from spotlight BARCELONA '92 COUNTDOWN

BARCELONA COUNTDOWN 92

July 26, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Anna Seaton has a degree from Harvard, a 10-year-old Toyota pushing 100,000 miles and a resume that reads like a page from the temporary want-ads: bicycle messenger, carpenter's apprentice, nanny and waitress.

But she isn't complaining.

Seaton is an Olympian, a rower who trains at dawn, dreams of gold and lives on $12,000 a year.

"Rowing is probably one of the last amateur sports left," she said. "We're used to the economic hardship and the anonymity. But we're part of the new Olympics."

The 1992 Summer Games, which opened yesterday with a colorful blend of Catalan patriotism and Spanish warmth, are benchmark Olympics, dominated by professional athletes and bankrolled by multinational corporations.

Amateurism -- a bastion of elitism that governed the Olympics for nearly a century -- is history.

These are the Games of basketball's American Dream Team, tennis millionaires and running entrepreneurs. Michael Jordan dunks for the United States and Nike. Steffi Graf hits forehands for German marks. Leroy Burrell --es for medals and cash.

But for every Jordan, there are hundreds of Seatons, athletes who must scrimp and save, work odd jobs and take advantage of stipends, all in a bid to finance careers that can lead to glory once every four years.

"I hate to see the Olympics as something athletes would do to please their sponsors. I'd like the gold medal to mean more than that," said Seaton, 28, who was raised in Manhattan, Kan., and lives in Boston.

"Michael Jordan is certainly a zillion times better of an athlete than I am," she said. "But I train just as hard. I don't resent that. I love rowing. I love the fact that I'm going to the Olympics. It just doesn't bother me that I'm not being paid a lot."

But at least Seaton is earning money to row. A thousand a month through a grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC).

"For a family of four, $12,000 a year is just below the poverty line," the amateur rower said. "But I'm not complaining. I live with a family for free in exchange for a little child care."

The cash flow to pay America's Olympic athletes opened after the 1984 Los Angeles Games turned a $250 million profit.

National sports federations and their athletes demanded a cut of the take. Now, top-flight wrestlers, swimmers and track-and-field athletes can earn $50,000 to $200,000 -- and sometimes much more -- through prize money, endorsements, public speaking and stipends.

The Olympic Job Opportunities Program, inaugurated in 1977, lends a hand, matching athletes with corporations willing to pay full-time wages for part-time work. Flatwater canoe-kayaker Chris Barlow trains whales for Sea World in San Diego. Call a bank or a utility in Southern California, and you could be talking to a U.S. Olympic volleyball player.

"Our athletes are growing up and growing older in their sports," said Harvey Schiller, USOC executive director. "More athletes need living expenses and other funds.

"They're not getting rich by any means. They're just trying to pay their bills."

The U.S. Olympic Committee also provides tuition assistance for athletes. Mike Gostigian of Newtown Square, Pa., a favorite to win a medal in the modern pentathlon, was able to attend graduate school in business through a USOC stipend.

"I may be broke now," he said. "At least after I finished business school, I wasn't in debt."

The money for training and the rush to include professionals are changing the Olympics in other ways, too.

Once, these gatherings allowed obscure athletes in esoteric sports to gain a brief flicker of fame. Now, the pros crowd out the amateurs. Individual federations that rule worldwide sports have different eligibility rules. But except for baseball, boxing, cycling and soccer, these are "open" Games, enabling millionaires and athletic paupers to perform side by side.

But will anyone pay attention if white-water canoeist Jon Lugbill of Bethesda wins a gold on the day the U.S. men's basketball team runs up another 50-point victory? Is a gold won by Carl Lewis more important than a medal won by wrestler Chris Campbell?

The "minor" sports are in danger of being buried even further in the Olympic program, while the "high-profile" sports continue to pile up corporate support. While the U.S. men's pentathlon team takes donations from an exotic dance club in Kansas, the U.S. men's basketball team is getting dollars from McDonald's.

"I used to get tired of the pecking order," said Leo White, a U.S. Army captain stationed at Fort Eustis in Virginia, who competes in judo. "If I win a gold, it might get five minutes of TV time. But it doesn't matter. I'm content with what I do. I compete for the competition itself. I don't fight for money."

Still, there are sacrifices these Olympians must make.

Diver Mary Ellen Clark once sold knives door-to-door to keep her diving career intact while attending graduate school at Ohio State University.

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