(Corrects description of Cresco in second paragraph in story published Dec. 13.)
Canadian downhill ski champion Larisa Yurkiw’s work to reach the Olympics doesn’t end when she leaves the slopes after training.
The 25-year-old lost national-team funding in April, and has been forced to find help to compete against U.S. millionaire Lindsey Vonn in Sochi. Her detour has taken her through boardrooms to snag 12 sponsorship deals worth C$150,000 ($142,000) with companies including currency brokerage Cresco FX to cover her training and competition costs.
“It’s been like running my own business,” Yurkiw said in a telephone interview from Canada. “I would go and train in the morning and put a dress and heels on and head to the office.”
Yurkiw is among 20 to 30 alpine skiers around the world trying to pay their own way to February’s Games as federations struggle to collect enough money to support them, according to former U.S. ski coach Greg Needell. Athletes can gain qualification points at World Cup events through the end of January. Yurkiw’s next scheduled race is the Super Giant Slalom in St. Moritz, Switzerland, tomorrow.
Under the sport’s rules, she and the other self-funded skiers wear national team uniform at World Cup races and at the Olympics if they qualify.
Part of the Winter Games since 1936, Alpine skiing is one of the most expensive Olympic sports to bankroll because athletes have to follow winter snow around the world to remain competitive.
Some national teams are trimming costs amid a decline in sponsorship. Calgary-based Alpine Canada’s annual sponsorship income fell about 25 percent to C$13.5 million since Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Games, according to Keith Bradford, a spokesman for the organization.
The federation, which gets about 45 percent of its funding from the government, has eliminated office jobs as well as withdrawing Yurkiw’s funding, Bradford said.
Chemmy Alcott, a Briton who finished 11th in the super combined event at the 2010 Vancouver Games, said she controls everything from her finances to her image rights on her own. The U.K. snow sports federation folded in 2010 and a new organization doesn’t give her any funding, she said.
After remortgaging her house, she brokered deals with Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc and Coutts & Co Ltd. to provide her with a car and financial services, among other sponsors and equipment suppliers.
“I am my own business,” said Alcott, 31. “Nowadays the market is a lot more volatile so it’s more about getting little sponsors here and there.”
Alcott, who seeks to qualify for Sochi even after breaking her leg in late August, devotes about three hours a day to chasing sponsors. She recently complained to three stall holders at a ski show in the U.K. when she saw they were using her image without permission.
Most of the 54 skiers on the U.S. team have to pay some of their travel costs, typically $20,000 per year, according to Tom Kelly, spokesman for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Some have turned to crowd funding site RallyMe.com for donations, offering perks such as signed ski bibs in return.
The USSA’s net annual sponsorship income has only just recovered after a decline in 2009, 2010, and 2011, rising 1.6 percent to $25.9 million in five years through April 30, according to data from its annual reports.
U.S. companies are cautious about sponsoring all but the top echelon of skiers such as Vonn partly because Comcast Corp.’s NBC won’t be broadcasting races live from Sochi, according to David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
“They’re looking for just a couple of athletes who are doing very well,” Wallechinksy said.
Vonn, the 2010 Olympic downhill champion, endorses drinkmaker Red Bull GmbH, Rolex Group and Under Armour clothing supplier, pulling in as much as $6 million a year from sponsors, according to analysts at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. She also won about $1.1 million in World Cup prize money in the two years through March 2012.
Vonn wasn’t available for comment for this story, a spokeswoman for her, Brittany Gilpin, said in an email.
Alcott said many of her competitors don’t have to worry about money either. Prize money from World Cup races -- which ranges from 52,000 Swiss francs ($58,600) for first to 1,000 Swiss francs for 10th -- goes “straight into their pockets,” she said.
The only expense of Switzerland’s 83 team members is a token 3,000 Swiss franc fee to cover insurance, Swiss ski federation spokesman Lorenz Liechti said.
Swiss Ski increased sponsorship revenue by 56 percent to 32.9 million francs in the five years through April 30 because of improved agreements with phone company Swisscom AG and insurer Helvetia Holding AG. Skiing gets more exposure in Switzerland than the U.S. and Canada, with as many as 1.4 million of the 8 million population viewing World Cup races, Liechti said.
Yurkiw’s seven years of funding from Alpine Canada ended in April after a disappointing comeback year following a two-year injury layoff. She tore knee ligaments a few weeks before the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
She said she put down C$25,000 to keep skiing and had to start budgeting for expenses such as ski passes for the first time. About half her costs are for paying her coach. Others include air tickets, car hire and hotels.
In Lake Louise, Canada on Dec. 6, Yurkiw finished seventh in a World Cup downhill race. She needs another top-12 finish to qualify for Sochi in the discipline.
She is also seeking to qualify for the Super Giant slalom. Her parents, who are both entrepreneurs, encouraged her to strike out alone, she said.
“I have learned a ton about business,” Yurkiw said.
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