To Go For The Gold, You Gotta Have Green

When stockbroker Michael R. Lofton quit Wall Street two years ago, he began a futile search for another job that would allow him to maintain a career while chasing Olympic gold. The combination didn't sit well with potential employers. After learning that Lofton might be away from the office nearly a third of the time for training and competition, they showed him the door. But that was before Lofton, the country's top fencer, found some powerful help.

Thanks to the muscle of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Olympic Job Opportunities Program, Lofton secured a spot in Ernst & Young's marketing department. The New York-based accounting firm is one of about 150 U.S. companies that have put 378 Olympic-caliber athletes to work through the Olympic Job Opportunities Program since its founding in 1977. Notable OJOP graduates include World Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield and track-and-field gold medalists Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. By combining full-time pay and benefits with flexible hours, OJOP has helped athletes narrow the gulf separating them from the government-subsidized top jocks of other countries.

The athlete's financial burden can be enormous. While sports organizations usually pick up the tab for international competitions, the individual athlete has to bear the cost of training, travel, equipment, and domestic competition--$5,000 to $40,000 a year for a world-class athlete, according to OJOP. That's on top of normal living expenses such as rent, car payments, and college loans.

Worse, the average U.S. Olympian, age 25 and out of college, has to choose: sports or career. That's what happened to Lofton, 28, a member of the 1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympic Fencing Teams. After graduating from New York University in 1988, Lofton quit fencing and became a Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. broker. "I thought it was time to develop the professional side of my life," he says. Lofton couldn't get fencing out of his system, though, and decided to try out for the 1992 team. OJOP matched him up with Ernst & Young.

OJOP has done the same for 13 members of the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics, including luger Bonnie Warner, a United Airlines pilot. After the games, some will return to their companies to carve out a career. Miller Brewing, Allstate Insurance, and Security Pacific Bank, among others, all have former OJOP atheletes still on payroll.

The jocks can't goof off on the job or in training, and employers are under no obligation to keep them working if they do. But that's rarely a problem. Says Roy Chapman, college relations manager for J.C. Penney Co.: "They don't work many hours, so when they're here, they work harder."

FREE PUBLICITY. Indeed, the dedication that Olympic-caliber athletes possess is a big plus for many OJOP employers. Not to mention their coworkers. Other employees "are excited about having them here. They're rooting for them," says Charlie G. DiMercurio, a project manager for Anheuser-Busch Cos., which has employed the most OJOP athletes since the program was adopted by the Olympic Committee in 1984 (table).

Employers do get some perks from the program, including free publicity and passes to some Olympic events. But they insist they're driven mostly by the Olympic spirit. Most of the athletes agree. Lawyer Mary C. Mazzio, 30, approached her Boston firm, Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer, about her desire to compete for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team. The law firm joined OJOP and has given her an eight-month paid leave of absence to train. If she makes the team at the Olympic trials in May, she won't return to work until August. "I don't know how I would make it without their support," says Mazzio.

OJOP employers would say that nothing could top that kind of heartfelt gratitude. But then again, a gold, silver, or bronze medal certainly would make a handsome paperweight.

      Companies hiring the most Olympic hopefuls since 1984
      Company  Number of athletes
      ANHEUSER-BUSCH            65
      J.C. PENNEY               34
      HYATT                     12
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