Phelps May Face Greatest Challenge After Olympics Leave Town

Olympic athletes who spend years toiling in the quest for gold medals can encounter a greater

challenge when they retire from competition.

About 10,500 athletes took part in this year’s London Games. More than 70 percent of competitors typically don’t return at the next edition, according to the International Olympic Committee. Many face a twofold test: finding a replacement for that Olympic buzz and forging a new career as the global economy struggles.

Jamie Baulch, a 1,600-meter relay silver medalist for Britain at the 1996 Olympics, knows what it’s like. He said he was “very isolated, very alone” when he left the track in 2005 after 15 years.

“When I retired, it was like, ‘See you later, goodbye,”’ the 39-year-old former runner said in an interview. “There wasn’t a lot of help. Some athletes really struggle, especially if you haven’t made enough money in the sport.”

Baulch said he left the sport because he didn’t enjoy it anymore and that it took “two to three years to suddenly go from retirement to being established in other things. It’s very difficult.”

He worked as a children’s television show presenter and now runs his own sports-management company.

“It’s going to be a tough transition for some,” Sarah Winckless, a 2004 bronze-medal rower and chairwoman of the British Olympic Association athletes’ commission, said in an interview. “There’s the emotional upheaval of changing life in such a big way. Some people can find that extraordinarily difficult.”

Career Guidance

Even superstars also have to readjust.

Michael Phelps ended his swimming career after the London Games as the most successful Olympian with 22 medals, including 18 golds. He said his next task will be to find a new competitive outlet.

“The excitement of standing behind the blocks, looking down and getting ready for a race, that’s something I’ll definitely miss,” Phelps told Bloomberg Television.

The 27-year-old American, who earns up to $7 million a year from endorsements according to Forbes magazine, is working on improving his golf swing on a Golf Channel reality show with one of Tiger Woods’s former coaches, Hank Haney. After his last race in London, Phelps said he may challenge his friend and U.S. Masters champion Bubba Watson to a swim race and a round of golf.

It’s “hugely important” for athletes to get good career guidance, Bram Ronnes, a former Olympic beach volleyball player from the Netherlands, said in an interview.

Ronnes quit a year after competing at the 2008 Olympics. He’s program manager of “Gold on the Work Floor,” a joint project of the Dutch National Olympic Committee, the Netherlands-based Sport & Business foundation and Randstad Holding NV, the world’s second-largest staff provider. Since 2009, the program has placed close to 150 athletes in jobs.

Chasing Dream

There’s been “a huge influx” of athletes seeking career advice and job placement since the London Games, he said.

Winckless, 38, estimated as many as 400 former professional British athletes may be retiring after London 2012, some of whom failed to make the cut shortly before the games, which closed on Aug. 12 with Britain’s biggest medal haul since 1908.

“You spend your youth pursuing a dream, how do you replace that?” said Winckless, a three-time Olympian with a natural-sciences degree from Cambridge University who quit rowing three years ago.

The IOC offers assistance with career counseling and job placement in 30 countries in cooperation with Adecco SA, the world’s largest provider of temporary workers. Since its start seven years ago, the Athlete Career Program has helped some 10,000 competitors.

Experience Helps

More than 300 U.S. athletes have been placed at companies ranging from Home Depot Inc. to McDonald’s Corp., online stock trader TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., and General Electric Co. in full-time and part-time jobs during or after their sports careers, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Accounting firm Ernst & Young in the Netherlands calls itself a “top athlete friendly employer,” on its website.

“We find it important that employees maximize their potential, and former athletes are great ambassadors to help achieve that.” The firm last year hired former Olympic sailor Petronella de Jong and rower Bastiaan Vervoort.

James Williams was a silver medalist for the U.S. in Beijing in the men’s team saber event and competed at London. He interned at the investor-relations department of TD Ameritrade with help from the USOC.

“The weakest part of an Olympic athlete’s resume is experience,” said Williams, a Columbia University graduate. The 27-year-old said he probably won’t be competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and is looking for a job in finance. “I believe my internship increases my desirability as an applicant.”

Hiring a former top-level athlete can add value for employers, Winckless said. What they may lack in practical knowledge, they more than make up for in attitude.

“Dedication and drive towards a goal,” she said. “That’s what athletes can bring in,”

Looking Ahead

Most athletes know precisely where their strengths and weaknesses lie on the field. It can be different in the job hunt.

“What are your qualities?” Ronnes, 33, said. “Most athletes find that really hard to figure out. They often say ‘I can’t really do much outside of my sport.’ Then it turns out the athlete has always done his own public relations, booked his own travel and has basically run his own business. Most athletes have many more qualities than they think.”

Looking ahead instead of dwelling on past glories is important, Ronnes and Winckless said.

“It really is the best time of your life, and it will always remain the best time of your life,” Ronnes said. “You need to give that closure. Being a professional athlete is a unique experience.”

Winckless combines her work on the BOA’s athletes’ commission with leadership coaching for companies such as Visa Inc. and broadcasting work. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and is training for a cycling race to Paris.

“If I have one tip for retiring athletes, it would be to stay active,” she said. “It really helps.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE